La Paz- When FIFA, the body that governs world football, decreed last month that international matches could not be played at altitudes above 2,500 metres (8,200 feet), Evo Morales must have been delighted. For once, Bolivia's president could apply his genius for political gesture to an issue that does not divide his countrymen. Mr Morales, a keen footballer, turned out for a few impromptu matches in La Paz's national stadium (altitude: 3,600 metres), cheered on by nearly all of Bolivia's 9m people. They see the FIFA ruling, which cites health worries, as an attack on their competitive advantage.
Many of Mr Morales's gestures in the 17 months since he took office as Bolivia's first-ever elected president of Andean Indian descent have been more divisive. His most popular policy, the nationalisation of oil and gas, has irritated foreign governments and investors. The “democratic revolution” he promises—a transfer of wealth and power from Bolivia's white and mestizo (mixed race) elite to the mainly Andean Indian poor—alarms the prosperous eastern provinces. He calls the media the “main adversary” of his government and wants to hold them accountable to the people. On June 5th the judiciary staged a one-day strike to counter a presidential assault on its independence.
In short, his opponents fear that Mr Morales is leading Bolivia down the path that his close friend, Hugo Chávez, has taken Venezuela: one of “21st-century socialism” and a presidential monopoly of power. “Chávez owns the Bolivian government,” says Jorge Quiroga, the leader of the opposition Podemos party.
Mr Chávez is clearly an ally and an inspiration for Mr Morales, but does that make him a model? His advisers insist not. “It's a mistake to think that Morales is a copy of Chávez,” says Pablo Solón, the government's foreign-trade envoy.
There are three reasons to think he may be right, none of which assume that Mr Morales would not enjoy wielding absolute power. First, while Mr Chávez is a former army officer who came to national prominence by leading a failed military coup, Mr Morales is the leader of a coca-growers' union and of a coalition of radical “social movements” whose protests brought down two previous governments. Mr Morales is now their unchallenged leader, but they will resist the idea that all change should come from the top down.
Second, Mr Morales confronts powerful regions headed by elected governors opposed to his plan to “refound” Bolivia. Finally, although natural gas has been a bonanza, its revenues are far more modest than Venezuela's oil billions. Bolivia cannot generate enough growth and jobs without private and foreign investment. In short, Venezuela is a one-man show but governing Bolivia demands alliances.
Mr Morales himself seems unsure of where he is heading. His ready acceptance of Venezuelan patronage and his raids on independent institutions feed suspicions. In April 2006 Mr Morales signed up to Mr Chávez's “Bolivarian Alternative for the Americas”, a managed-trade agreement and anti-American alliance also involving Cuba. Venezuelan aid has poured in. It pays for scholarships, a campaign to distribute identity cards and the cheques that Mr Morales hands out to mayors for local development in the Altiplano, Bolivia's vast western plateau. More aid is promised for a network of community radio stations and the upgrading of the main state television station.
Mr Morales also has Mr Chávez's penchant for subverting rival centres of power, but perhaps less talent for it. Take the latest clash with the judiciary. This began when the Constitutional Tribunal ruled that four Supreme-Court justices temporarily appointed by the president should yield their seats. Mr Morales called for the tribunal's impeachment. The judiciary staged its first-ever strike to resist the government's attempt to “throw out the Bolivian judicial system and implant a totalitarian regime,” said a statement by the Supreme Court.
In January Mr Morales's supporters tried to unseat the governor of Cochabamba, the country's third most-populous province, for proposing a referendum on autonomy. Three people died in violent clashes. The incident pushed the governor closer to the four opposition-led eastern regions that had already backed autonomy in a 2005 referendum.
These skirmishes are part of an improvised revolution with uncertain aims. The vice-president, Álvaro García Linera, recently called for a “broadening of elites” and “room for both capitalist and post-capitalist development”. What opponents see as an assault on democracy, the government sees as purging vestiges of “anti-democratic” tendencies.
Greater clarity should soon come from a constituent assembly that is writing a new constitution (another device used by Mr Chávez to consolidate his power). Mr Morales's Movement to Socialism (MAS) proposes to redefine Bolivia as a “unitary, pluri-national, communitarian” state that gives pride of place to three dozen indigenous “nations”. These groups would control territory and natural resources and would be represented as communities in a single-chamber legislature alongside individual citizens. Private enterprise would be protected when it “contributes to economic and socio-cultural development”. A fourth “social power” would oversee the traditional three.
This smacks of corporatism, not democracy. The opposition objects to dividing Bolivia ethnically, and to the abolition of the Senate, where small provinces have political weight. The MAS has a majority in the assembly but not the two-thirds required to approve a new constitutional text. Samuel Doria Medina, the leader of a centrist opposition party, thinks compromise is possible. Indigenous “nations”, for example, could become wispier “nationalities”, he says.
In some moods the government seems open to compromise. “We don't want a constitution approved by 60 or 70% of the country but rejected by the rest,” said Mr García Linera. The final text, due by August 6th, will be subject to a referendum and then to interpretation by the courts, which Mr Morales does not yet control. What he may really be angling for is an end to the current rule that bars presidents from consecutive terms, so that he could run for re-election under the new constitution next year and again in 2013. In return, he would accept the opposition's demands for regional autonomy, says Carlos Toranzo, a political analyst.
Such deal-making would not be out of character. In January, Mr Morales dropped a campaign for the assembly to approve constitutional articles by simple majority after this provoked huge protests in the eastern regions. With the United States, he has arranged a wary, and perhaps temporary, truce. Some 40,000 jobs, mainly in the poor western highlands, depend directly on American trade concessions, now up for renewal. The United States, eager to avoid rupture, is overlooking Mr Morales's enthusiasm for coca, the raw material for cocaine. Recently, he joined the American ambassador to open a newly-illuminated road tunnel— something it is hard to imagine Mr Chávez doing.
But charging ahead when he can, and retreating when he must, is not a strategy for governance. The inexperienced, often inept, government has achieved little beyond boosting ethnic and national pride, and gas royalties. Bolivia is enjoying multiple windfalls, from high commodity prices to remittances and debt forgiveness. Even so, the economy grew less than the Latin American average last year, points out Gonzalo Chávez of the Catholic University in La Paz. More than half the population is poor, four-fifths of workers labour in the informal economy and emigration continues. Mining and gas apart, private investment is a negligible 2-3% of GDP. Yet in April Bolivia said it would withdraw from an international arbitration panel that investors use to resolve disputes. If he does not create good jobs, no amount of constitutional gimmickry will sustain Mr Morales's current popularity.