Under Pressure: Bolivian Assembly Struggles to Draft Constitution

Thursday, 26 April 2007, Written by Andean Information Network

Bolivia’s Constitutional Assembly has been charged with a huge task, not just to rewrite the nation’s constitution but also to ‘refound’ Bolivia. This includes restructuring the government, reforming education, dealing with natural resources and deciding what the constitution will say on controversial issues such as coca and autonomy. The Assembly’s decisions could greatly affect all Bolivians’ lives, but after taking seven months to decide on voting procedures, its ability to approve a pragmatic and inclusive constitution and resolve many deep-seated, nationwide controversies in the next four months remains unclear. It is even less clear, though, what would occur if efforts to formulate a new constitution fail. Consequently, it is crucial that all parties work together to successfully draft a functional document representing the rights of all citizens.

Perceptions of Progress Differ

Despite the controversies and time constraints, the head of the Movement Towards Socialism (MAS) majority in the Assembly, Román Loayza, remains positive about their work and believes that if each commission keeps working, “we can achieve the completion of the new text of the constitution,” in the time allotted. He added that his colleagues need to act responsibly because if they don’t, “the people will be the ones who judge the assembly representatives.”[1]

However Podemos, the largest opposition group in the MAS dominated Assembly, expressed doubts that the Assembly will succeed. “The management of land and natural resources, the presidential reelection, the use of community justice and even the broad structure of the State could be themes which the Constitutional Assembly will not reach a consensus on, nor achieve the 2/3 requirement to directly approve them.”[2] While some of the opposition representatives are fully engaged in the process, there are others who do not appear interested in trying to reach a consensus nor a compromise. If the 255 members of the Assembly can not resolve these issues, then a national referendum will be held for the voters to decide.

Assembly Attempts to Resolve National Controversies

Morales’s mid-March announcement that there will be elections in 2008 and his subsequent declaration that he would campaign in those elections has sparked a controversy. For the new constitution to take effect, elections must be held. Under the current constitution presidents may only serve one five year term and then are not eligible for immediate reelection. In order for Morales to be eligible to run in the next elections, the Assembly would need to approve consecutive presidential terms.

MAS Assembly member Carlos Romero declared that Morales will be able to run in the next election because there will be a new constitutional mandate and “the Assembly will change the rules of the game.”[3] The opposition disagrees and complained that MAS will use the Assembly to enable Morales to stay in power longer. The opposition has also complained about the MAS proposal to lower the voting age to sixteen and the government’s ongoing drive to provide citizens with identification cards, claiming that these actions are an attempt to increase the ranks of MAS supporters.

The autonomy issue is another highly contentious question that the Assembly must resolve. Autonomy is often over-simplified as a poor, indigenous West versus wealthier, whiter East battle over the control of natural gas. The debate in the Commission on Autonomy, Decentralization and Territorial Organization in the Assembly is far more complex, with over a 100 proposals dealing with six levels of autonomy: regional, departmental (similar to U.S. states), provincial, municipal, federal and indigenous.

Autonomy has been a battle cry for the opposition movement and the concept, with a myriad of vague and sometimes conflicting definitions, has exacerbated extreme political regional and ethnic polarization in the country. While the drafting of a constitutional article satisfactory to a majority of the nation on this topic appears to be an insurmountable obstacle, if they fail to do just that then the entire nation will have to vote on proposals in a national referendum. Manfred Bravo of Podemos doubts the capacity of the people to decide on the issue and warns that, “A national referendum could generate divisions and greater confusion in the country.”[4] Civil leaders of lowland departments have threatened to independently declare autonomy on their own terms if they dislike the Assembly’s conclusions.

Countdown to the August 6th Deadline

The 255 members of the Assembly, divided into twenty-one commissions, are facing the daunting task of synthesizing over 7,000 proposals into a coherent constitution and approving it. With just four more months to produce a final product, acceptable to the Bolivian public, some Assembly members are pleading for more time while others claim that any further delay would lower the moral of the representatives and further shake the faith of Bolivians in the process. Even the Assembly’s vice president, Roberto Aguilar, asserted that “we need to make an adjustment in the terms of the timeline.”[5]

The technical secretary of the National Vision commission questioned the lack of a unified methodology in the work of the commissions. He stated, “It’s my obligation as an official to warn that, we are progressing in a very chaotic and disorderly way.”[6]

Current Timeline

August 6, 2006 - The Assembly convened – the culmination of seventeen years of a grassroots struggle for constitutional change – and after the initial fanfare, did virtually nothing except debate voting procedures for six months.

February 14, 2007 - The Assembly adopted a voting process as well as a timeline.

April 23, 2007 - After a six week national tour to gather proposals, the commissions returned to work April 23rd in Sucre, to synthesize the proposals into constitutional articles. Some commissions continue to accept proposals though the deadline for the articles in April 30th. Many commissions have received over 200 proposals and only five had submitted their final drafts as of April 26th.[7]

May 1 – June 15, 2007 - Assembly-wide plenary sessions to debate and approve these articles will begin.

June 15 - July 2, 2007 - Articles approved by 2/3 of the plenary will pass to the Editorial Committee and will be included in the new constitution. If, after June 15th, there are articles that have not received 2/3 approval they will pass to a separate coordinating committee which will attempt to reach consensus on those articles, before July 2nd.

July 3 – 25, 2007 - Approval of the final text of the Constitution will be sought in plenary sessions. The text needs a 2/3 approval from all the assembly members to be finalized by the August 6th deadline.

August 6, 2007 and beyond - A popular referendum will be held for citizens to vote on the text of the new constitution as well as any articles that did not receive 2/3 approval in a plenary session. The date for the referendum has not been set, nor has it been decided whether there will first be a referendum to vote on the unapproved articles and then a separate referendum to approve the constitution, or just one referendum for both.

Overcoming Resentment Essential for Progress

With such a tight schedule, it is vital that all Assembly members work together diligently to meet their deadlines. However, MAS and opposition parties continue to clash within the Assembly distracting representatives from the work at hand. Party politics stalled the initial work of the Assembly for seven months over a debate on voting procedures. The assembly eventually ratified a compromise which requires 2/3 approval for each article, while unapproved articles will be presented to the Bolivian public in the national referendum.

The Catholic Church Bishops’ Council recently sent a letter to the Assembly stating that “The confidence that the people initially placed in the Constitutional Assembly has been lost,” and that, “The conflicts and the inefficiency have sown doubts in different social sectors that this event of much importance for the country’s future can end happily.” They affirmed that assembly representatives have a “grave responsibility to overcome tensions and to work in an open climate of dialogue, respect and unity.”[8]

If the Assembly members fail to overcome those tensions and refuse to make mutual concessions this process could deepen the current political crisis and intensify regional and ethnic polarization. Yet in spite of continuing conflicts, the potential for representatives to put aside their political resentment and personal biases to create a balanced, inclusive constitution could be the best solution to many of the nation’s ongoing controversies and lead to a positive political transformation.


1 Foro Constituyente. “Asamblea Constituyente debe acelerar su trabajo.” April 25, 2007.
2 Foro Constituyente. “PODEMOS mantiene visión pesimista sobre la Asamblea Constituyente.” April 25, 2007.
3 La Razón. “Gobierno pide que Evo vuelva de cero el 2008.” March 21, 2007.
4 Foro Constituyente. “PODEMOS mantiene visión pesimista sobre la Asamblea Constituyente.” April 25, 2007.
5 La Razón. “La Asamblea improvisa y le falta tiempo.” April 24, 2007.
6 Ibid.
7 Foro Constituyente. “Mañana comisiones deben presentar sus sistematizaciones.” April 25, 2007.
8 La Razón.
“La Asamblea siembra dudas, según la Iglesia.” April 25, 2007.

First published by Andean Information Network

No comments:

Bolivia Rising