The Wished-For Technical Draw in Bolivia

Raul Zibechi, La Jornada 11-07-2006

The recent elections for the Constituent Assembly mark the end of the political transition in Bolivia. The developing scenario, despite the solid victory of the Movimiento al Socialismo (MAS) of President Evo Morales, looks much more like a stand off than the categorical electoral victory of December 2005. With MAS failing to win two thirds of the Assembly, the defeated Right has the chance to veto the country's re-founding, an objective that thousands of Bolivians fought for and hundreds died for in the streets over five years, so the project for change is limited to a reform of the Constitution.

It's true as Evo pointed out that from various perspectives the elections of July 2nd represent an important triumph for his government. They consolidate the social majority that it obtained in the presidential elections of last December, going from 54% to almost 60% of the votes. It wins an absolute majority in the Constituent Assembly with 134 of the 255 assembly members. And it makes impossible approval of the autonomy project promoted by the separatist right of the eastern region (particularly Santa Cruz and Tarija) where Bolivia's hydrocarbon resources lie. In these strategic departments MAS made progress and is ready to dispute the majority there with the Right.

But contradictory as it may seem, the elections for the Constituent Assembly have turned into an example of the difficulties of bringing about fundamental change. The limitations derive from the law that called the Assembly and affect as much the possibility of changing the institutional scaffolding as changes in the dominant political culture, anchored to representation via political parties. Article 25 of the law establishes that two thirds of the assembly members are required to be able to approve new articles in the Constitution. MAS is a long way off the 170 votes necessary and with only 134 elected representatives will have to make important concessions to the Right. The most likely result is a number of minor changes while decisive matters remain unchanged.

Secondly, the way the Constituent Assembly was called consolidated the party system. The Convocatory Law of the Constituent Assembly only permitted the presentation of candidates from political parties or from official groups and made it difficult for direct participation of indigenous peoples movements that could only do so via MAS, which calls into doubt their autonomy. Judging from other recent experiences in Latin America, especially the Ecuadoran Consitutent process in the 90s, the results will be mediocre and far from the proclaimed "refounding" of Bolivia. As embarrassing as it may turn out to be, one has to recognise that a demand born out of the popular movements, hotly defended by massive uprisings since the "water war" of 2000 in Cochabamba, will stay trapped in the wilds of a state bureaucracy in the process of consolidating itself. That the state machinery is dressed in ponchos and traditional skirts makes little difference to its habits and ways of working.

But the new moment - a moment dominated by the limits encountered by change - has not fallen from the sky. It was a political and ideological construction driven by a reading of reality that spoke of a "disastrous stand off", then a cycle of stuggles over five years that broke up the neo-liberal project in Bolivia and the political forces that led it. Politicians and intellectuals, among them Vice-President Alvaro Garcia Linera, stuck to the Gramscian argument and used it as an alibi to say that the only solution was via elections.

What reading of reality is it that emphasises a "disastrous stand off"? From what place is reality viewed so as to reach that conclusion? The very concept alludes to a motionless, bogged down situation and implies a view from above. However, that has not been the reality of Bolivia from the beginning of 2000 when the massive mobilisations that were called the "water war" (April 2000) and the "gas war" (September-October 2003 and May-June 2005) showed how the correlation of forces could be changed. It was during those periods that the hydrocarbons were nationalized because the decree of May 1st signed by Evo Morales did no more than ratify legally what had been won in the street.

The five impressive years that put the Bolivian popular movement in the centre of the political scene were born in a moment of triumph for the neo-liberal model and a deep defensiveness and dispersal of the popular movements. By the middle of 2005, these had managed to break up all the strategies of the elites and go on for more. From that moment on, the temptation of government - that had already caused damaging divisions to the popular movements during the government of Carlos Mesa - imposed a new agenda. To justify that U-turn, the argument of a "disastrous stand-off" fits like a glove.

The moment of insurrection gave way to the moment of institutionality. And with it deals with the right were added to the demobilization, embodied in the law to call the Constituent Assembly, which in fact, hands a power of veto to the Right. One of life's ironies, the power of veto used by the aymara and quechua to impede the projects of the ruling elite, passes now to the hands of their enemies. Vice-President Alvaro Garcia Linera sounds over-optimistic saying "the Constituent Assembly is going to mend inherited fractures, tensions and divisions" and that the new Constitution will resolve the colonial divisions handed down from 500 years ago. It seems that only a new cycle of struggles like the one recently concluded can break this stand-off put together as a short-cut to get into government.

Translated from Spanish into English by toni solo, a member of Tlaxcala

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