Evo Morales: the force is with him

John Crabtree
3 July 2006

Bolivians went to the polls on 2 July 2006 for the second time in just over six months. In December 2005, 54% of voters elected Evo Morales as president, affording his party – the Movimiento al Socialismo (MAS) a majority in the chamber of deputies. This time, the majority again voted for the MAS, which will now be the largest single party in the new constituent assembly that has been elected with the specific task of rewriting the country's constitution.

The preliminary figures indicate that the left-wing MAS won 134 seats out of a total of 255 in the assembly. Its nearest challenger, the centre-right Podemos, coalition won sixty-four seats, and the centrist Unidad Nacional only ten seats. In a simultaneous referendum on regional autonomy, the majority of voters (56%) supporting the government's line by voting "no", although the "yes" vote predominated in the eastern-lowland departments which had originally insisted on the referendum being on the ballot-sheet.

On both scores, then, the vote represents a major further victory for Evo Morales and his government which took office in January. The constituent assembly will begin its deliberations on 6 August, Bolivia's independence day, and will have up to a year to produce a new constitutional text. This will be the first constituent assembly since 1938, although a package of constitutional amendments was passed as recently as 1994.

Evo's secret

The extent of the MAS victory reflects the personal popularity of Evo Morales which, if anything, has increased over the past few months. An opinion poll published a week before the elections put his personal popularity rating at 81%, one of the highest presidential acceptance rates anywhere in the Americas (another poll puts his current popularity rating at 75%).

There are three broad reasons for this surge in Morales's popularity. The first is the stand he took on the politically symbolic day of 1 May, when he announced the "renationalisation" of the country's oil and gas industries, part-privatised in the 1990s. The extent of nationalisation went well beyond what most observers had been expecting. The government has also raised the taxes paid by foreign investors in the hydrocarbons industry, and on 29 June managed to increase the quantities and price of the natural gas it sells to Argentina. This improves its fiscal position substantially.

The second reason for Morales's current acclaim has been the announcement of government plans to speed up and increase the scale of land redistribution, chiefly in the eastern part of the country, in favour of poor peasants and indigenous communities. Land shortage has become a chronic problem in the last few years, particularly in Santa Cruz where soya-farmers, cattle-rearers and timber companies have increasingly been encroaching on indigenous territories.

The third factor is that the government has taken steps to reduce the salaries of top government officials (including that of the president himself), launched a literacy drive and reduced energy prices for poor families. It has also promised to spend much of the extra money it receives through oil and gas taxes on education and health.

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)

The opposition's dispersal

The government's main opponents, notably those in the Podemos coalition led by former president Jorge "Tuto" Quiroga, had hoped that the constituent assembly results would help them recover political terrain lost in the December presidential and congressional elections. This optimism proved misplaced. The sixty-four seats gained by Podemos in the assembly are considerably fewer than the coalition had hoped for.

The results were also very disappointing for the country's traditional parties, largely displaced from the political scene in December in a wave of revulsion against the way Bolivia had been governed since the 1980s. Once-powerful parties like the Movimiento Nacionalista Revolucionario (MNR), the dominant party since the 1940s, will probably only have seven seats in the assembly, the Movimiento de la Izquierda Revolucionaria (MIR) one and Accion Democratica Nacionalista (ADN) none at all.

The opposition fared better in the vote for departmental autonomy, in which 44% of the electorate voted "yes", helping the campaign achieve majorities in four out of the nine departments: Santa Cruz, Tarija, Beni and Pando. The wording of the referendum question – worked out after painstaking negotiations between the government and opposition blocs in congress – obliges the constituent assembly to consider the issue of autonomy for these four departments, subject to a proviso that this happens "within a framework of national unity". It is still far from clear what this means in practice, but it seems certain that regionalist sentiments will have to be heeded.

The powerful civic committee in Santa Cruz, the Comite Pro Santa Cruz, claimed that the 72% victory for the "yes" vote on autonomy in the department was a vindication of its longstanding campaign for greater freedom from central government control. But equally, the fact that the MAS won the same number of assembly seats in Santa Cruz as Podemos (nineteen apiece) indicates that the political control long exercised by the political elite in Bolivia's wealthiest department may be breaking down.

The demand for autonomy in Santa Cruz and Tarija – particularly autonomy over the use made of the tax revenues derived from gas exploitation – has been fuelled by recent discoveries of large reserves of natural gas in these areas. But large number of the poorer inhabitants in Tarija too voted for the MAS, giving the movement nine out of a total of twenty seats there. Bolivia's regional divisions are not straightforward.

The government's limits

Despite the majority it has won, Evo Morales's government will not be able simply to railroad its proposals through the new assembly. In order to secure passage of any reform, a two-thirds majority will be needed. This means that the MAS will need to work together with the many small parties that have managed to gain representation. Furthermore, once the assembly has finished its work, a national referendum must be held to ratify its decisions.

In preparing the ground for the elections, the government gave considerable ground in accommodating opposition demands over the voting method to be used. Of the total of 255 seats, 210 are based on seventy single-member constituencies; the remaining forty-five are divided equally between the nine departments. In single-member constituencies, the winning party took two seats and the runner-up one; in the departmental seats, the winner took two, and the second-, third- and fourth-placed parties one apiece. This meant that even if the MAS had won across the board, in all constituencies and in all departments, the maximum number of seats it would have would be 158, less than the two-thirds needed to impose its will on the assembly.

The assembly's issues

The issue of departmental "autonomies" prevailed over all other considerations during the election campaign. This had the effect of deepening some of the traditional political divides that separate the eastern lowland and the western highland departments, as well as the ideological differences between the MAS and its opponents. While defining what these "autonomies" will actually mean in practice will be an important – and controversial – task, the assembly's remit will be much wider than this: it will seek to restructure the political system as a whole to make it more representative and inclusive.

Five broad issues will help to define its work. First, a key task will be to extend indigenous rights in a country where the indigenous population is the majority but where it has historically been sidelined in government decision-making. Morales's achievement as the first pure-blooded indigenous president in Bolivia history is a powerful symbol of the prevailing new mood.

However, unlike some indigenous leaders, Morales is committed to a dual task: building a multicultural country in which the majority feels adequately represented. The emphasis on indigenous rights raises awkward questions about what such rights should consist of and how to demarcate the interests of indigenous people from those of other Bolivians. Some guidance here is given by the fact that the notion of community – as opposed to individual – rights is deeply rooted in Bolivia political culture.

Second, the constituent assembly will be called upon to make changes to the way in which the country is governed – including the division of powers between central, departmental and local tiers of government. This, like the autonomy question, raises vexed questions over how the resources of the state should be apportioned.

Third, the assembly will also address the balance of power between the executive, legislature and the judiciary, and whether the existing presidentialist system should be kept intact.

Fourth, the assembly will also probably have a voice in where the frontiers should be drawn between the public and private sectors. This has been a contentious issue ever since public companies in important sectors of the economy such as the state oil and gas company were privatised in the 1990s. Hostility to privatisation was one of the factors that helped bring about the forced removal of President Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada, the president responsible for privatisation, in October 2003.

The inclinations of the MAS are towards a more statist, nationalist system, although one in which the private sector will continue to have an important part to play. The new constitution therefore may introduce a more strict definition of the role to be played by private capital, particularly where foreign investors are involved.

The coming uncertainties

This background to the new assembly will make for a fascinating set of negotiations when it begins its work in Sucre, Bolivia's legal capital, in August. For many Bolivians, the assembly represents an important opportunity to discuss and redefine the rules guiding political behaviour. That the opposition seems keen to engage in the process is a good start in creating a new political framework based on consensus and commanding legitimacy.

At the same time, the suspicion remains that the MAS will seek to use this opportunity to feather its own nest and further consolidate its hold on power. The transformation of radical movements into establishment governments is a familiar pattern. It may transpire that the main areas of contention over the constitution will prove to be relatively few, and that Bolivia's 2007 constitution – like those of 1938 or even 1880 – will reiterate much of what is embodied in previous constitutional texts. The true extent of Bolivia's constitutional, political and social transformation under Evo Morales, then, remains an open question.

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