Stratfor, June 13, 2007
Bolivia's ruling Movement Toward Socialism (MAS) appears to have gathered enough third-party votes to push a reconfiguration of Bolivia's political structure through committee in the South American country's Constitutional Assembly. The provisions would grant political control over large swathes of land and natural resources to indigenous groups -- while simultaneously denying the wealthy Media Luna region's demand for a system that provides departmental autonomy only. As the main opposition party, Podemos, loses its ability to block MAS' demands, the region could be left with no option other than street protests and quitting the assembly.
A series of maneuvers by Bolivia's ruling Movement Toward Socialism (MAS) over the past few days could lead opposition party Podemos to conclude it has been disenfranchised from a vital component of the Constitutional Assembly process. As a result, Podemos supporters, particularly those in the lowland Media Luna region -- which comprises the Santa Cruz, Tarija, Beni and Pando departments -- could conclude at a June 18 meeting that they have no choice but to walk away from the assembly and organize large street protests.
The committee in charge of drafting an article on the political division of powers in Bolivia is expected to vote on proposals June 13. MAS' main proposal is almost certain to gain a majority of votes, creating autonomous regions based on traditional indigenous territories, with many of these situated in lowland areas ruled by the primarily ethnic European opposition. The proposal breaks a compromise MAS announced just last week, which would have incorporated the indigenous districts only within the existing departmental and municipal framework. Even more alarming for the opposition, it now appears MAS has secured enough votes from third-party delegates to co-opt the dissenting minority proposal as well.
It had been assumed that Podemos' proposal, which expressed the Media Luna lowland region's preference for regional autonomy without new indigenous zones, would gain the second-highest number of votes and hence move on for consideration as the minority proposal. However, a third proposal, also by MAS, was submitted unexpectedly June 11 as a second minority position. Assuming MAS can get enough votes to force the committee to approve both of its proposals before the June 21 deadline (it currently needs only two more votes to do so), Podemos will lose all its power in this committee.
The strategy is a bold move by MAS, but by abandoning its earlier compromise consensus, the party risks forcing the opposition to move to derail the assembly altogether. By resorting to backdoor negotiations with minority parties, MAS is demonstrating that it believes it can garner a two-thirds vote in the full assembly -- which will consider all the committee proposals jointly -- without making significant concessions to the opposition. Podemos has only 23 percent of the full assembly's 255 votes, while MAS has 54 percent and is forming alliances with several of 14 smaller parties to secure the remaining 12 percent it needs. The full assembly vote probably will be postponed from August until November, but it is unlikely Podemos will wait that long before taking to the streets.
In MAS' official "Vision for the State," the party articulates a clear bias in favor of indigenous political representation and control of the country's natural resources. According to the document, Bolivia's wealth and political power should be concentrated in the hands of the majority population of indigenous descent. To guarantee this revolutionary reversal of Bolivia's political and social structure (and to appeal to the indigenous party base), Bolivian President Evo Morales' party proposed granting formal recognition to precolonial indigenous territories by creating a new layer of government in so-called indigenous regions.
Under Morales' plan, indigenous groups would have the right to draw new (or redraw old) political boundaries that could overlap with current departments and municipalities. These new autonomous regions would have jurisdiction over their natural resources, stripping current departments of wealth and power. This vision is a cornerstone of Morales' popularity with the indigenous groups.
It is also incompatible with lowland interests. The Media Luna region has declared itself in a permanent state of emergency in defense of departmental autonomy, and has made clear it will not accept a constitution that does not respect this key point. The region's civic leaders will meet June 18 in Santa Cruz to consider possible options to prevent Morales and MAS from taking complete control of the assembly.
If the group chooses to turn to protests, such unrest probably will be localized in the Media Luna region, and therefore will have little effect on the assembly's proceedings. If the protests escalate and are taken to Sucre and La Paz, however, protesters could encounter equally committed indigenous groups, leading to violent clashes. Before taking things that far, Podemos might choose to withdraw completely from the Constitutional Assembly, declare the process a failure and blame Morales for refusing to compromise.