Bolivia: the battle for two-thirds

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

Bolivia's ruling party, the Movimiento al Socialismo (MAS) is locked into a politically consuming battle with the right-of-centre opposition in the assembly that is to rewrite the country's constitution. Each side is now mobilising its supporters in what is turning into a key struggle for power and influence. For the leftwing government of President Evo Morales, this represents the most serious challenge since it took office in January 2006, following Morales's and the MAS's decisive victory in the presidential and legislative elections on 18 December.

The constituent assembly was elected on 2 July 2006 and formally began its deliberations on 6 August, Bolivia's independence day. It is based in the country's juridical capital, Sucre, and has a year to agree a draft constitution. So far, however, it has yet to begin its substantive business. Pro-government and opposition groups have failed to agree even on the basic rules that will govern the assembly's work, particularly on the margin by which decisions should be made.

The MAS delegates argue that individual decisions should be passed by a majority (50%-plus-one) of votes; the opposition - chiefly the rightwing Podemos coalition - says that the margin should be two-thirds. The MAS has a numerical majority of seats in the assembly - 137 of the 255 seats - but this represents 33 fewer than would be needed for a two-thirds majority. For the opposition, the issue of numbers is decisive in whether it will have any genuine influence over the proceedings or just become part of a rubber-stamp institution.

Behind this argument over numbers is a wider question of the interpretation of a linguistically ambiguous component of the constituent assembly's operating rules. The statute governing the assembly states that its decisions must be approved by a two-thirds majority. The MAS argues that this means that the final draft constitution as a whole needs to be approved by two-thirds, but that a simple majority is enough for each individual decision. The opposition contends that the MAS just wants to be able to override the opposition parties and effectively rewrite the constitution along the lines it sees fit.

John Crabtree is a research associate at Oxford University’s Centre for Latin American Studies. He is the author of Peru under Garcia: Opportunity Lost (Macmillan, 1992), Fujimori’s Peru (ILAS, 1998), and Patterns of Protest: Politics and Social Movements in Bolivia (Latin America Bureau, 2005). He is the editor of Making Institutions Work in Peru: Democracy, Development and Inequality since 1980 (Institute for the Study of the Americas, London University, April 2006).


Also by John Crabtree on openDemocracy:

"Bolivia's retreat from civil war" (June 2005)

"Peru: the next Andean domino?" (June 2005)

"Bolivia on the brink" (October 2005)

"An Andean crisis of democracy"
(November 2005)

"Evo Morales's challenge"
(January 2006)

"Peruvians prepare to bite back" (April 2006)

"Peru's chessboard" (April 2006)

"Bolivia stakes its claim" (May 2006)

"Peru: the institutional deficit" (May 2006)

"The return of Alan García" (June 2006)

"Evo Morales: the force is with him" (July 2006)

"Alan García's second coming" (July 2006)

A divisive debate

The Movimiento al Socialismo is reluctant to give the opposition parties too much leeway in the design of a new constitution. The party argues that its opponents have consistently sought to frustrate attempts to make the country's political ground-rules more inclusive and participatory. It also says that the minority of elite, white or mestizo, Bolivians which has run the country for centuries needs to learn to submit itself to the will of the indigenista majority which MAS represents.

The political momentum behind this claim derives from the double electoral victory - by an absolute majority of almost 54% - in December 2005 (although the MAS's majority of seats in the chamber of deputies was not matched in the senate). This pattern of voting repeated itself in the 2 July constituent assembly elections, where again the MAS won more than half the seats.

For its part, the opposition claims that the government wants to use its majority to silence opposition and to extinguish democratic debate. It is also critical of the way in which the MAS wants to assert the superiority of the assembly over the other powers of the state, enabling it - should it wish to - to dismiss the bicameral congress or the supreme court. It also rejects the claim that the assembly is "indigenous" in its nature, an expression of Bolivia's Aymara and Quechua majority.

With no agreement in sight on the voting issue, the conflict has speedily turned into a make-or-break issue for each side, surpassing institutional bounds and spilling over into the country as a whole. For its part, the MAS has been mobilising its peasant support in and around the old colonial city of Sucre. The opposition staged a one-day regional protest on 8 September in those parts of the country where it is strongest: the eastern lowland departments of Santa Cruz, Tarija, Beni and Pando.

The politics of region

The issue thus opens up once again the regional divide in Bolivian politics. The MAS's widest support has been in the western, highland departments of La Paz, Oruro and Potosi, as well as in the Andean "valley" departments of Cochabamba and Chuquisaca. In this, the party has connected itself to the enduring strength of Bolivia's powerful trade-union tradition, as well as the strong indigenista movement which has become increasingly influential over the past twenty years.

Indeed, the victory of the MAS over Bolivia's traditional parties in the three elections of the last nine months (presidential, parliamentary, and constituent assembly), signifies in some respects a political victory of the west over the east. Those parties - particularly the Movimiento Nacionalista Revolucionario (MNR), Acción Democrática Nacionalista (ADN) and the Movimiento de la Izquierda Revolucionaria (MIR) - have tended to be stronger in the eastern region.

These opposition parties were reduced to a relatively small rump in the first two elections, and - now gathered into the relatively new Podemos coalition - have become even more regional in nature. Most of their members in congress and the constituent assembly are from the four eastern departments. When challenged by the MAS, they therefore swiftly resort to playing the regional card, one of the few strong political assets they still possess.

The main political champion of regionalism has traditionally been the Comité Pro Santa Cruz (CPSC), the civic committee in Bolivia's economic capital which has long sought to achieve greater freedom and autonomy from La Paz. The CPSC is made up of representatives of the dominant sectors of Santa Cruz's elite, and its power has increased along with the growing predominance of the cruceño economy over the rest of Bolivia. The decline of Bolivia's traditional mining economy and the growth of cash-crop agriculture and hydrocarbons since the 1970s has increased Santa Cruz's share of GDP at the expense of the highland departments. The CPSC has managed successfully to identify the regional interests of Santa Cruz with those of the local elite.

The CPSC took the lead in orchestrating the 8 September protests against the government. It did so in conjunction with similar civic committees in the rest of eastern Bolivia, particularly in the cities of Tarija and Trinidad (the capital of Beni). It was aided in this endeavour by a number of more shadowy organisations with a clearly anti-indigenista and far-right agenda, such as the Unión Juvenil Cruceñista (UJC) and the so-called Nación Camba. These use vigilante tactics to elicit support for pro-regional autonomy campaigns.

However, organisations like the CPSC no longer enjoy the unrivalled power that they used to. The MAS too has in recent years developed a support-base in both Santa Cruz and Tarija departments, mainly among the poor and migrants from the highlands attracted by the employment opportunities there. The MAS is also backed by indigenous groups in eastern Bolivia, which have become increasingly articulate exponents of their ethnic identity and interests. In the constituent-assembly elections, the MAS - for the first time - polled more votes in the Santa Cruz and Tarija departments than any other party.

Two critical issues

Two key policy issues have served to heighten the eastern elites' opposition to the MAS. The first was the re-nationalisation of Bolivia's oil-and-gas industries, announced by Evo Morales in a blaze of publicity on 1 May 2006. The economies of Santa Cruz and Tarija had benefited greatly from the investment into the development of Bolivia's considerable gas potential that followed privatisation in the mid-1990s. Since the renationalisation move, such investment has now virtually stopped.

The impact of this shift is both economic and political: hydrocarbons-industry representatives play an important role in the Camara de Industria y Comercio (Cainco), one of the key institutions behind the CPSC. The pivotal character of the energy issue in Bolivian politics was demonstrated again on 15 September, when energy minister Andrès Soliz resigned after the government appeared to waver in face of opposition to its energy policy from the influential Brazilian company Petrobras.

Also on Bolivian politics in openDemocracy:

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)

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

The second issue is the government's promised policies to pursue agrarian reform in Santa Cruz. Confrontations over land distribution in Santa Cruz have become frequent and bitter flashpoints in recent years, with landless peasants squatting on (often unused) land belonging to large landowners. Rural social movements, involving peasants and migrant workers as well as the landless, have openly associated themselves with the MAS. The government's plan to introduce agrarian reform has caused alarm among the organisations representing commercial agriculture, especially the Camara Agropecuaria del Oriente (CAO), another stalwart backer of the CPSC.

A major concern among elite groups in Santa Cruz, and their political backers in Podemos and other parties, is that the MAS will use its control over the constituent assembly to enshrine these sorts of policies as constitutional precepts. They are also highly suspicious of the government's policies of "ethnic affirmation", which may give new rights to lowland indigenous groups over the land they occupy and the resources on (or beneath) it.

These elite groups also fear that policies of decentralisation will seek to reduce the sway they have traditionally exercised over their department, by empowering smaller towns at the expense of the capital, Santa Cruz city itself. A proposal has already been mooted to create a tenth department in the Chaco, composed of the southern part of Santa Cruz department and eastern parts of Tarija and Chuquisaca. This area is ethnically dominated by the Guaraní people, and it includes the territory where Bolivia's main gas deposits are located.

The row over voting rules in the city of Sucre is therefore much more than just a dispute over procedure. It has implications that are central to the so-far unresolved struggle for power in Evo Morales's Bolivia. With so much at stake, neither side is likely to give in easily. Bolivia's search for a workable future continues.