Bolivia: after the vote

John Crabtree
2 February 2009

The Evo Morales administration won a clear victory in Bolivia's referendum on 25 January 2009 to approve the country's new political ground-rules. The "yes" vote achieved 61.43% of the vote, against 38.57% for the "no" option. The 411-article constitution is now due to be promulgated by the president on 7 February to formally replace the previous (1967) constitution.

However, the results brought a clear "no" victory in the four departments of the media luna (the "half-moon" eastern lowland departments of Santa Cruz, Beni, Pando and Tarija). The "yes" option won its least votes in Beni (32.4%) and Santa Cruz (34.7%), the two departments whose prefects have taken the most intransigent line with respect to the new constitution.

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)

"Bolivia: new constitution, new definition" (22 January 2009) 

So if Evo Morales celebrated a further electoral triumph in La Paz (where he had won 67% of the vote in a recall referendum in August 2008), the situation in Santa Cruz is different; the prefect there, Ruben Costas, has threatened to ignore the new constitution and launch a campaign of civil disobedience if Morales refuses to negotiate how the document's provisions will be applied in the east. This position has been echoed by the prefects of Beni and Tarija.  

At the same time as deciding on the constitution, voters also opted by an overwhelming 80% a proposal to impose a 5,000-hectare limit on the amount of land an individual can own. Perhaps not surprisingly, support for the existence of huge landed estates (latifundismo) has a limited electoral appeal in a country with one of the most unequal distributions of landholding anywhere in Latin America. But as a concession to the opposition in October 2008, the government agreed that the limit would not be made retroactive. So those estates with land-titles over and above the limit - there are estates of 50,000 hectares or more - will not have to worry about expropriation.  

Between law and politics 

The passage of the constitution has proved to be far more time-consuming and polarising than most had thought possible when the constituent assembly was first elected in July 2006. The rightwing opposition may have been a minority in the assembly, but it managed to make the most of the blocking power it could wield: first pushing the proceedings way beyond the original twelve-month deadline,  then boycotting the final proceedings and thus disassociating itself from the draft document that emerged, and finally (in October 2008, after a month of violent confrontations) forcing the government to renegotiate on some key points as a condition for passing a law enabling the referendum to be held (see "Bolivia: new constitution, new definition", 22 January 2009).  

In legal terms, this should be the end of the story. With those voting "yes" surpassing 50%-plus-one of valid votes cast, the constitution now becomes Bolivia's fifteenth since the country achieved independence from Spain in 1825. In political terms, however, the new constitution will remain a major source of grievance for those not only dislike what it represents but would like to see the present government removed from office.  

A necessary negotiation

The task of implementing the provisions of the new constitution will require agreements with the opposition both in congress and with the prefects (now to be known as "governors") at the departmental level.  

Some of the constitutional changes more involve questions of nomenclature than substance, but around 100 new laws are thought to be required to implement the more substantial innovations. By controlling the senate, the opposition parties are in a position to block those laws they do not like. The current congress, elected under the previous constitution, will remain in office until a new legislature can take up its seats after fresh elections (presidential as well as parliamentary) are held in December 2009.

There is therefore plenty of scope for haggling over how the broad principles enunciated in the constitution are actually put into effect. It may ultimately fall to the new legislature - to be known as the "plurinational legislative assembly" - to pass much of this legislation. However, some measures (such as reforms to the electoral law) cannot wait that long.

The government stands to benefit from the fissures that emerged in the opposition camp during the referendum campaign. Some of its congressmen, for example, signed up to the October 2008 agreement and refused to support the "no" campaign. It is probable that more divisions will emerge if (as seems likely) the opposition fails to nominate a single, consensus candidate to take on Evo Morales in the presidential poll.  

The negotiations with the opposition prefects/governors - and behind them the combative civic committees of the media luna - may prove to be much more difficult. They have already begun to prevaricate on the terms on which they are prepared to talk to Morales, turning down the suggestion that they would negotiate one-by-one. The game of cat-and-mouse between La Paz and Santa Cruz seems set to continue.

A particularly thorny issue will be the definition of what "regional autonomies" will actually mean in practice. The constitution envisages a system of multi-layered autonomies: at departmental, sub-regional, and municipal levels, and for Bolivia's indigenous groupings. This scheme is already far from the model of autonomies announced by the prefects at the beginning of 2008 in which power would be vested (largely in themselves) at the departmental level. There will therefore be endless opportunities for discord in working out the functions and attributes of different levels of autonomous authority - in particular, how these are to be financed. 

The external factor 

An important additional element in influencing the course of Bolivian politics over the next year will be the positions adopted by external actors: notably the United States, the European Union and the Union of South American Nations (Unasur).

The message sent to the Morales administration by the incoming Barack Obama team congratulating it for the outcome of the referendum bodes well for a more supportive stance in Washington.  The Bolivian foreign minister has responded by saying that he hopes for a new start in bilateral relations, following the crisis caused by last year's expulsion of United States ambassador Philip Goldberg. Washington may decide that a new overture towards La Paz may be a price paying to restoring some of its lost influence in South America. This, however, cannot be taken for granted.  

The European Union has also expressed satisfaction at the outcome of the referendum, to which it sent a number of observers. However, Bolivia's relations with the EU have been clouded in recent times by its unwillingness to negotiate a framework agreement in which trade liberalisation forms an important part.  The EU has said that it now intends to negotiate trade deals bilaterally with other members of the Andean Community (CAN).

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)

But probably most important in direct influence is the response of other South American countries, particularly Brazil and Argentina. Both the Organisation of American States (OAS) and Unasur sent teams of observers to oversee the referendum. Bolivia's South American neighbours are relieved that the divisive battle over the constitution may have reached its conclusion, and will do what they can to ensure that its provisions are implemented.  

It became clear in September-October 2009 - when three transnational organisations (Unasur, the OAS and the EU) became involved in mediating Bolivia's political impasse - that no foreign powers have an interest in seeing either Bolivian democracy or the country's territorial integrity put at risk by secessionists in Santa Cruz and the media luna (Justin Vogler, "Bolivia nears the precipice", 17 September 2008). This situation is very different from the 1960s and 1970s when both Brazil and Argentina were actively involved in conspiracies to use regional conflicts to overthrow elected governments in Bolivia. The leaders of both countries - Bolivia's two main regional economic partners - have gone out of their way to give Evo Morales their personal backing. 

A bumpy ride

Although politics in Bolivia will continue to be conflictive in 2009 and further regional standoffs are to be expected, the main event will be the campaign to elect (or re-elect) the president in December. This may well help channel political energies away from the regional stalemate and focus attention on national issues, not least how the new constitution is to be put into effect. Evo Morales enters this latest political offensive with three substantial advantages: his evident popularity, his unrivalled pre-eminence within the ruling Movimiento al Socialismo (MAS), and his control over the machinery of the state.  

The opposition's task would thus be difficult in any event, but it also faces internal problems: Podemos, the largest of the opposition parties, has been badly divided by internal squabbles and lacks any sort of organised structure within society. The opposition has a formidable task in finding a candidate capable of winning support beyond the media luna (which is not enough to win the presidency). No such candidate who can appeal across Bolivia has so far emerged, though some - such as former president Carlos Mesa and former vice-president Víctor Hugo Cárdenas - have intimated an interest in putting their names forward.

In these circumstances, the re-election of Evo Morales seems a likely bet - but this very fact will engender ever greater feelings of frustration among his opponents and possibly a growing reluctance to engage with him through democratic channels. Bolivia's bumpy political ride continues.

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