Evo Morales and Bolivia: the next campaign

John Crabtree
18 November 2008

President Evo Morales of Bolivia is now able to prepare for a referendum in January 2009 on the country's new constitution, following a historic deal with the centre-right congressional opposition on 21 October 2008 which enabled the document to win acceptance. To secure this agreement involved the president making significant concessions. But it is not yet clear if this flexibility will end the sort of political confrontation that led to widespread violence as recently as September (see Carin Zissis, "Bolivia Bridges Political Divide", AS/CoA, 21 October 2008).

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)

The significance of what happened in Bolivia's congress is that it creates the prospect that - after two and a half years of political wrangling - Bolivia's new constitution will see the light of day. The amended text formed the basis of the 21 October agreement between the government and most opposition members; in turn this allowed a law to be passed which prescribed the holding of a referendum to ratify the document. The vote will take place on 25 January 2009. The constitution will almost certainly be approved; if so, fresh presidential and congressional elections will be held in December 2009 - with Evo Morales likely to win a further term in office.

The deal was struck amid the arrival in La Paz of thousands of government supporters who, determined to see the referendum law approved, had marched towards the capital. Many had walked for days across the inhospitable Altiplano. Morales, who is always eager to associate himself with his country's social movements, joined their ranks as they entered the city. The congress voted to accept the compromise deal on its own, but the presence of mineworkers - who let off dynamite in the square outside the legislative building - may have sharpened its members' resolve. 

A power conceded

A number of concessions was the price that the president had to pay to win the necessary two-thirds majority in congress. All in all, more than 140 articles of the original draft constitution - agreed upon by the ruling Movimiento al Socialismo (MAS) and its allies in December 2007 in the city of Oruro - were changed. Some of the changes were minor, but at least half were substantive (see "Bolivia's controversial constitution", 10 December 2007). 

In particular, they involved meeting the opposition half-way on the issue of departmental autonomy, the most overt area of disagreement since the opposition decided to boycott the constituent assembly last December. Four of Bolivia's nine departments - all in the lowland media luna ("half-moon") rejected the draft constitution as it stood, and proceeded to issue what they called "statutes of autonomy". These were de facto declarations of quasi-independence, subsequently approved in unofficial referenda in the four departments concerned (Santa Cruz, Tarija, Beni and Pando). The campaign for autonomy reached a climax in a spate of violent confrontations in Santa Cruz and elsewhere in September 2008; for months it has seemed set to tear the country apart (see "Santa Cruz's referendum, Bolivia's choice", 30 April 2008).

But in order to secure a deal, concessions on autonomy were not enough: Evo Morales had to take three further steps. First, he agreed not to make limits on agricultural landholding in eastern Bolivia retroactive. A parallel referendum will now be held (on 25 January) on this issue; but even if voters agree to impose a 5,000-hectare limit on landed estates, existing landowners - many of whom have landholdings far in excess of the limit - will not be affected.  They will just have to show that the land they hold is not idle and fulfils a "social" and "economic" purpose.

Second, Morales agreed to limit his ability to stand again as president to a single five-year term. Under the existing 1967 constitution, a Bolivian president cannot succeed himself. This prohibition was lifted in the original draft of the new constitution, allowing Morales the possibility of running for two further terms. This opened the possibility of him staying in office until 2019.  The compromise arrangement secures the president's agreement not to stay beyond 2014 (assuming he is re-elected in 2009). 

Third, the government has accepted that any changes to the new constitution must have the support of at least two-thirds of congress, not just a simple majority as stipulated in the Oruro document. This would make it harder for the MAS - if re-elected next year - to then change the constitution once again, for instance lifting the bar on re-election beyond 2014. By the same token, however, it makes it harder for opposition parties to amend the new constitution. 

A president strengthened

The deal between Evo Morales and the opposition is, in many respects, a significant victory for the president. A majority of the articles agreed upon in the original draft constitution stands; a source of major political friction between the government and its opponents is removed. In addition, Morales has managed to engineer a division in the opposition separating its more moderate members in congress from its more extreme leaders in the departments of the east. Indeed, members of the civic committees in the media luna feel badly let down by their putative political representatives. 

The period leading up to the agreement was significant in shaping this outcome, as the balance of power between Morales and the main opposition leaders shifted in three significant ways. 

First, in a "recall referendum" in August 2008, more than two-thirds of the electorate voted for Morales to stay in office. This degree of support took even his supporters by surprise. It greatly exceeded his margin of victory (54%) - itself a historic landslide - in the presidential election of December 2005. Even in large parts of the media luna the majority of people voted for Morales, thus exploding the myth that support for the government and opposition was somehow evenly split between east and west. Those voting against Morales were mainly residents of urban areas in the media luna.

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)

Justin Vogler, "Bolivia nears the precipice" (17 September 2006)
Second, the violence that shook Bolivia in September - including the seizure and ransacking of government offices, the blocking of highways, attacks on gas installations (crucial for exports), and the killing of many government supporters in the remote northern department of Pando - helped shift the position of some previously outspoken opposition leaders. The scale of the crisis made an accommodation, principally with the Podemos grouping, easier to negotiate. A good deal of the violence was actually perpetrated by youth groups associated with the departmental "civic committees" (see Justin Vogler, "Bolivia nears the precipice", 17 September 2008).

Third, the threat to democracy in Bolivia and its integrity as a country obliged external actors to get involved. The Unasur grouping of South American presidents, meeting in Chile in September, pledged its full support to Morales. It offered its services - alongside those of the Organisation of American States (OAS), the United Nations, and the European Union - to help broker an agreement that would restore calm. These pledges in fact played an important part behind the scenes in helping stage a process of dialogue between the government, the opposition local prefects and the civic committees. Seldom has a Bolivian president - especially one who only weeks before had expelled the United States ambassador for allegedly helping foment the unrest - received such a clear show of international support. 

A path sighted

Now, with the constitution agreed, Evo Morales can anticipate a clear "yes" vote in the 25 January 2009 referendum; a victory that would be a springboard to his probable re-election as president in December next year. He will also be hoping that this time, his margin of victory is sufficient to clinch an absolute majority for the Movimiento al Socialismo in both houses of congress. Until now, the opposition majority in the senate has enabled Podemos and its allies to block key items on the government's legislative agenda. 

But the road ahead may not be quite as straightforward as this suggests; the political polarisation between the government and its most bitter critics in the dissident civic committees will not simply disappear. 

The Comité Pro-Santa Cruz, which is by far the most powerful of the civic organisations in eastern Bolivia, has already indicated its dissatisfaction with the agreement between the government and the main opposition parties. Indeed, most of Santa Cruz's Podemos congressmen voted against the law enabling the referendum to go ahead, an act of defiance against the party leadership of former president Jorge Quiroga. The local leaders in Santa Cruz say they will rally their supporters for a "no" vote in the January referendum. The civic leaders in Sucre are equally bitter, since their demands that their city be restored to its historical role as full capital of Bolivia were blatantly ignored in the agreement. 

There are at least two main issues on which these civic committees can continue to harry the government and frustrate its agenda. Perhaps the more important will be defining what departmental autonomy is actually going to mean in practice, and especially how rents from extractive industries (chiefly natural gas) are going to be divided up between the central government, the departmental authorities, municipalities and indigenous organisations; the third and fourth of these are now supposed also to enjoy rights of autonomy. The civic groups in Santa Cruz and Tarija, in particular, will continue to demand a bigger share of the proceeds of gas exports. The prefects of the media luna, now to be known as governors, also demonstrated the extent of their own support in the August recall referendum by winning margins not dissimilar to those of Morales (see "Bolivia's democratic tides", 2 July 2008)

The land issue, too, will continue to be a cause of disaffection. The concession made by the government on limiting the retroactive effects of agrarian reform will take some of the sting out of this question, but conflicts over landholding will continue to be commonplace throughout the media luna. Landowners are often armed and prepared to defend their interests by force, and the government in La Paz is poorly placed to defend the interests of those who either demand access to land (landless peasants) or those who try to defend the lands against outsiders (such as indigenous groups).

So while the new constitution may now be legally enacted, battles are looming over how its provisions are finally applied.

At the same time, Bolivia is being affected by the worsening international economic climate, in particular the fall in commodity prices for hydrocarbons and minerals. This will reduce the president's ability to use these rents to fund social spending. It will also lead to increased levels of unemployment and poverty in this, south America's poorest country. Evo Morales's opponents will seek to capitalise on this if a "yes" victory in the January 2009 referendum leads to fresh presidential elections in December. Bolivia seems set for another epic political year.

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