Bolivia: new constitution, new definition

About the author
John Crabtree is a research associate at Oxford University's Centre for Latin American Studies.

The referendum in Bolivia on 25 January 2009 represents another key milestone on the lengthy path of devising and implementing a new constitution.  The opinion polls point to a victory for the "yes" camp, and thus a consolidation of the political project of the country's president, Evo Morales.

But in the context of the deep political divisions that have marked the process of making a new constitution, Bolivia's government seeks more than an overall numerical triumph. The key issue for it is whether its campaign for acceptance of the document is supported by a majority in those parts of the country - the media luna (half-moon) arc where the opposition is strongest. John Crabtree is a research associate at Oxford University's Centre for Latin American Studies. He is (on Bolivia) author of Patterns of Protest: Politics and Social Movements in Bolivia (Latin America Bureau, 2005) and co-editor of Unresolved Tensions: Bolivia Past and Present (Pittsburgh University Press, 2008); and (on Peru) author of Peru under Garcia: Opportunity Lost (Macmillan, 1992) and Fujimori's Peru (ILAS, 1998), and editor of Making Institutions Work in Peru: Democracy, Development and Inequality since 1980 (Institute for the Study of the Americas, London University / Brookings Institution Press, 2006)

Among John Crabtree's articles on Bolivia in openDemocracy:

"Evo Morales's challenge" (25 January 2006)

"Bolivia: the battle for two-thirds" (18 September 2006)

"Latin American democracy: time to experiment" (30 April 2007)

"Bolivia: a tale of two (or rather three) cities" (18 September 2007)

"Bolivia's controversial constitution" (10 December 2007)

"Santa Cruz's referendum, Bolivia's choice" (30 April 2008)

"Bolivia's democratic tides" (1 July 2008)

"Bolivia's political ferment: revolution and recall" (13 August 2008)

"Evo Morales and Bolivia: the next campaign" (18 November 2008)

Among the most important and contested elements in the constitution are the promise to increase the rights of Bolivia's majority indigenous population, which has been long excluded from spheres of decision-making; to provide for greater state control over the exploitation of the country's natural resources (not least its natural-gas wealth); and to enhance the autonomy of Bolivia's regions.

There is also a more immediate political implication. The proposed document removes the bar contained in the previous (1967) constitution which prohibits a Bolivian president from seeking re-election for a second, consecutive term in office. A majority "yes" vote on 25 January will pave the way for fresh presidential elections in December 2009, which most likely will result in the re-election of Evo Morales for a further five-year term.

The substantial (if far from universal) popularity of the president - reflected when it mattered with the impressive 67% he won in the "recall referendum" of August 2008 - should guarantee victory in this latest of a series of democratic tests. However, it is unlikely to bring debate over the constitution to an end. The document will require extensive legislation to make it operative, and there are likely to be further battles between the government and opposition over how it is to be implemented.

It will be a year until a new parliament - to be known as the "pluri-national legislative assembly" - takes office in early 2010. Between now and then will be an awkward limbo period for Bolivia's law-making institutions. During it, the existing congress - including the senate, where there is an opposition majority - may make passage of enabling legislation difficult.

The long road

The aspiration to rewrite Bolivia's constitution was expressed as long ago as 1990, when indigenous groups in the eastern lowlands marched on the seat of government in La Paz and presented a list of political demands to enhance their political and economic rights. A decade later, the country's restive social movements found in constitutional reform a banner under which to assemble during the period of mobilisation that in 2003 succeeded in toppling the Sánchez de Lozada government. Sánchez de Lozada's immediate predecessors in the presidency had given half-hearted support to the idea of convening a constituent assembly; but only after Morales's landslide election victory in December 2005 did the drive to reform begin in earnest.

The new Bolivian government - in which Evo Morales's Movimiento al Socialismo (MAS) won most of the seats in the chamber of deputies (lower house of parliament) - wasted no time: members of the assembly were chosen in an election in July 2006, and the assembly was officially inaugurated in Sucre (Bolivia's historic capital) the following month. But the ruling MAS, lacking the two-thirds majority required to push through its proposals unopposed, found its plans obstructed by the rightwing opposition's substantial minority. A tortuous fifteen months of detailed argument and prevarication ensued, culminating in a boycott by opposition parties of the assembly's final sessions in an attempt to cast doubt on the validity of the final document.  

The deadlock between the MAS and the opposition was broken only in October 2008. After violence flared in the opposition-dominated departments of eastern Bolivia, an agreement was reached in which most opposition members of the national congress agreed - in return for significant government concessions - to support legislation providing for a referendum to ratify the constitution.

The critical test

It is unlikely that more than a few Bolivian voters will read a lengthy text of 411 articles before they make up their minds which way to vote. For the great majority, the vote is in any case more of an opportunity to cast another overall  judgment on Evo Morales and the MAS government.

The "yes" majority will be particularly large in those parts of Bolivia where Morales's support is strongest: La Paz, Oruro, Potosí and Cochabamba.  The real political battleground will be in the opposition bastions in the south and east of the country where the "no" campaign has had most resonance: mainly Santa Cruz, but also the numerically important Tarija and Chuquisaca.  

Santa Cruz's prefect Rubén Costas and its civic committee have been the main spearhead of the "no" campaign. They will exert strong influence over many, but far from all: there are large pockets of MAS sympathisers among low-income neighbourhoods in the city of Santa Cruz itself, which is home to many immigrants from highland Bolivia. The results of the recall referendum in Santa Cruz department showed that a little over 40% of the population backed Evo Morales; a higher figure than in the 2005 election, though still outweighed by the majority's support two-thirds backing for Rubén Costas. Tarija and Chuquisaca, where Morales received the votes of 48% and 53% of votes respectively, were closer.

A victory for the "no" campaign in one or other of these media luna departments will lead to further challenges from local activists to the implementation of the constitution at departmental level. These activists presented so-called "statutes of autonomy" at the beginning of 2008 which embody a much more radical interpretation of what  "autonomy" means than the draft constitution's. These "statutes" also acquired some legitimacy when they were endorsed in local referendums in Santa Cruz, Beni, Pando and Tarija - albeit these were declared illegal by the national electoral court.

The last throw

In these areas where opposition sentiment is powerful, the MAS deploys an artful case that seeks to address the idea fuerza behind rejection of the new constitution: distrust of centralised government from La Paz. The MAS argues that the draft constitution does at least contain a formula for departmental autonomies - part of a multilayered system in which these autonomies would be complemented by other kinds (regional, municipal and indigenous). A "no" vote, the argument goes, would in effect mean upholding the 1967 constitution which makes no mention of autonomy and whose logic is thus more centralised.

For its part, the "no" campaign focuses on three themes, in an effort to alarm the voting population into rejecting the constitutional draft. The first is the depiction of the constitution as an attack on (Christian) religious belief and an opening to one or other kind of ancestral cult. In fact, apart from separating church and state the constitution says little about religion; it certainly cannot be construed as promoting cults, or indeed abortion and homosexuality, as some detractors allege. 

The second theme is that of indigenous "privileges", seen by the opposition as a two-tier system in which indigenous groups would have more rights than other citizens. This again is a misleading interpretation of what is actually proposed: the conferral of special rights to ethnic communities is restricted to the areas they inhabit and does little to detract from the rights of others.  The "no" campaign here is seeking to forge unity among non-indigenous, mainly mestizo Bolivians, by portraying the constitution as excessively in favour of the indigenous majority and thus discriminatory.  

The third theme is to challenge the proposed system of communitarian justice. This is frequently portrayed as sanctioning "mob rule" among indigenous communities; a tendentious approach which exploits scattered and lurid examples of offenders being summarily lynched to have its effect. 

After the vote

A popular endorsement of the constitution will open another difficult phase in Bolivia's fractious if absorbing politics. The enabling legislation for the referendum specifies that ensuing presidential and legislative elections will take place in December 2009. This date was also part of the compromise reached between the opposition and the government in October 2008 (with the government favouring a shorter, and the opposition a longer, interregnum). If these votes take place on schedule, it would mean that the plurinational legislative assembly would take office in January 2010 at the earliest.  

There is therefore a full year between the referendum result - after which the constitution technically takes effect - and the convening of a legislature to sanction the detailed provisions needed to give it force. In the intervening period it is the existing congress elected in 2005 (including the senate with its opposition majority) that will be called upon to begin the process of approving the necessary laws.  

Since the new constitution introduces a number of changes to the electoral system, the congress will at the very least need to approve the legislative framework for the holding of the December 2009 elections. The senate may therefore become the key arena of argument between the government and its opponents. At the same time, the solidity of the opposition majority there now looks to be in doubt; for in addition to the MAS and the main opposition bloc, a third grouping has emerged which is composed mainly of opposition senators who are less intransigent towards the government and more open to bargaining and dialogue.

Some government spokespersons, aware of the possible pitfalls ahead, talk of using executive decrees to override legislative opposition; others propose advancing the date of the elections in order to speed implementation of the constitution - which would contravene the terms of the October compromise, and is therefore unlikely.

The 25 January 2009 referendum is a vital stage on the arduous road to a new constitution. Evo Morales's long march, across a compelling and fluid Bolivian political landscape, continues.

Also in openDemocracy on Bolivian politics and social struggles:

Nick Buxton, "Bolivia in revolt" (8 June 2005)

Nick Buxton, "Revolutionary times in Bolivia?" (16 December 2005)

Andreas A Tsolakis, "Evo Morales's project: the limits of nationalism" (14 June 2006)

Isabel Moreno & Mariano Aguirre, "Bolivia: the challenges to state reform" (15 September 2006)

Ivan Briscoe, "Evo Morales: the unauthorised version" (16 January 2007)