Bolivia’s Constitutional Assembly Temporarily Suspended: Conflict Trumps Compromise

Andean Information Network, August 24, 2007

On Aug 6, 2006 Bolivia’s Constitutional Assembly began to write a new constitution to restructure the government, reform education, and decide on controversial themes such as coca policy and regional autonomy and natural resources. At the conclusion of its one year mandate, the Assembly has generated over 700 proposed articles, but has not yet approved any.
Since its inauguration, a rapid succession of conflicts has held up the Assembly’s process. The debate over voting methods prevented the Assembly from moving forward for the first seven months of its mandate and more recently, a call to extend the Assembly through December was hotly contested. With each new challenge, protests escalate before reaching an eventual compromise. Although this pattern temporarily allowed the process to continue, it failed to resolve the far deeper issues the Assembly is meant to address.

Almost immediately after reaching a congressional agreement to extend its mandate the Assembly has hit another brick wall. This time the issue is not wholly an East versus West regional debate, but is a rather more complex --and largely economic-- argument over whether or not the capital of the nation should move from La Paz to Sucre. In this latest in a series of recurring conflicts, all sides involved seem less interested in compromise and more engaged in flexing muscle, forging alliances and aggravating friction. The clashes have led to the temporary suspension of the Assembly. Although rigorous national debate on many issues dispelled initial fears from the opposition and some U.S. officials that the MAS ruling party would use the assembly to impose its political agenda, it remains to be seen how the different sides of the conflict with deeply entrenched positions will be able to overcome their differences to move forward with this important process.

Congressional Compromise Extends Assembly’s Mandate

While varied and sometimes contradictory protests, both within the Assembly and nationwide, have slowed the process, both the majority MAS and opposition parties momentarily put aside their differences and found some middle ground. After a heated debate and with just three days before the assembly’s mandate was due to expire; the Bolivian congress approved an amendment extending the constitutional assembly through December 14, 2007 with an additional nine months to carry out referendums. To reach a compromise in the congress, MAS ceded to the Podemos (leading opposition party) demand to hold two popular referendums, one to approve articles the assembly fails to ratify by a 2/3 vote and another to approve the resulting complete text of the constitution. The new legislation also stipulates that the assembly must respect the results of the 2006 referendum and grant departmental autonomy to Santa Cruz, Beni, Pando and Tarija. Some analysts question whether Congress has the authority to legislate the continuing operations of the assembly.

Though they have not ratified any articles, twenty-one commissions set up to review and condense the over 7,000 proposals have reached consensus on 250 articles. The commissions have submitted 517 more in two forms, a majority and minority proposal. These articles deal with the more contentious issues such as land tenure, autonomy, and the role of the armed forces and police. Many of these controversies stem from long unaddressed issues that provoke recurring conflicts.

The next task for the Assembly is to cull out repetitive proposals and try to come to an agreement on the divisive issues. The Assembly now has until September 9, 2008 to carry out the popular referendums and present a constitution approved by the Bolivian public, concluding a process more than ten years in the making.

Capital Conflict Closes Assembly Indefinitely

The question of the location of the nation’s capital has generated a fervent regional debate in which the historical capital of Sucre, with the backing of lowland elites wants the seat of government to move from La Paz. The proposal was introduced by Podemos members from Sucre. Pro-Sucre factions argue that their city has a historical right to house the capital and that the income this would generate is much needed in the small city. Pro-La Paz groups point out the difficulty in moving all government functions to Sucre and the obvious prohibitive costs. Politicians, assembly members, and citizens are divided along regional, instead of party lines making this conflict even more complex.

The MAS majority in the Assembly voted to end debate about the capital issue last week, suggesting that the issue does not fall within their mandate. In response, Pro-Sucre Assembly members initiated hunger strikes in the assembly building and marches throughout the nation. There are currently over 250 hunger strikers, including two MAS Assembly members from Sucre. La Paz has also held rallies and marches against the move.

The central government sent police reinforcements to the city and groups from both sides, including the Ponchos Rojos, Chapare coca growers, and the Santa Cruz Civic Committee, have threatened to send members in order to “defend the Assembly” and “defend democracy.” The vice-president of the Santa Cruz Civic Committee stated that “the three institutions (civic committees, assembly and congress) are going to demand that the Assembly continue, as long as the Sucre as Capital issue is reintroduced.”[1] However, some political analysts speculate that the capital debate is a well thought-out political tactic designed by the opposition to derail the Assembly.

On Wednesday, protesting Sucre university students and civic leaders sacked the office of a MAS affiliated organization and mistakenly attempted to burn down what they thought was the home of a MAS assembly member, after they chased him there. The police have responded to these protests with tear-gas and rubber bullets. Sucre Mayor Aydeé Nava denied that marchers had provoked the conflict and complained that the police had retaliated because they were from La Paz and Oruro. A 24 hour city-wide shut down of Sucre began on Thursday.
The Assembly attempted to meet Wednesday but protests forced the Assembly President Silvia Lazarte to officially announce the suspension of plenary meetings. Citing security risks, Lazarte stated there is “No schedule nor date for a new decision…also, we don’t even have an officers meeting scheduled. Everything’s up in the air as a result of this abuse.”[2] There have been few suggestions of ways to resolve this latest impasse, though some MAS members have suggested a special committee be set up to deal with the issue.


It is unlikely that the Assembly will be able to maintain its extended timeline due to heightening protests. If the process is able to move forward, debate on contentious issues will continue in mixed commissions who will attempt to consent to overall themes in order to eliminate some articles before they are brought before the entire Assembly. In order to place an article in the constitution, it must receive a 2/3 approval vote in a plenary session. Articles that do not achieve this approval will be sent to the public to decide in a popular referendum.

Assembly members from both MAS and Podemos expressed doubts that anything more will be agreed upon within the mixed commissions or the plenary. MAS representative Marco Carrillo stressed that “this is the first time the majority has power, that we’re equal,” so compromising isn’t the priority - ensuring the rights of Bolivians citizens, especially its indigenous citizens is. One Podemos representative stated that his party is “sure we will lose” to MAS every article that goes to referendum, but said they are unwillingly to compromise on the indigenous autonomy and community justice issues. When asked what would happen if they lose in the referendum, he said that there could be protests like we saw in January, where citizens battled in the streets of Cochabamba leaving three dead and hundreds wounded, “or worse.”[3]

Regional and Indigenous Autonomy

One of the most contentious themes in the Assembly is how to define and implement autonomy. Four lowland departments, the opposition strongholds, passed the 2006 regional autonomy referendum. The legally binding vote limits the Bolivian executive’s power by granting greater authority to departmental governments through decentralization measures, including direct elections for departmental governments. The vague wording of the initiative left the structure and details of this decentralization process to be defined in the Assembly.

The MAS proposal includes four levels of autonomy (departmental, regional, municipal, and indigenous) with equal status and subject to national laws. Podemos rejects the idea of parallel autonomies, and advocates only departmental autonomy.

Although MAS advocates for indigenous autonomy, some large umbrella organizations such as CONAMAQ (primarily from the highlands) and CIDOB (representing many lowland groups) have publicly expressed their displeasure with MAS's representation of indigenous proposals in the Constituent Assembly. In response to the MAS invitation to indigenous peoples to march in the Independence Day military parade, these organizations stated that the march would “irresponsibly exacerbate the political and social differences between highlands and lowlands that are becoming increasingly fractured” and that MAS was “overlooking the interest of the popular majority to favor partisan interests,” and that “political ties led to the relegation of indigenous proposals in the Assembly[4] A demand for the government and A.C. officers to begin dialogue with them by August 1, 2007 (So far there appears to be no progress on this front. Although they threatened “definitive extended protests in Sucre for which they would not assume responsibility for the outcome,” the announced measures did not occur.

Other Contentious Issues

· The National Vision Commission has not been able to decide on the new overall model of the state, nor a new economic model. MAS wants a “unitary, plurinational, and communal” state with the intention for everyone “to live well,” an Aymara cultural precept, but with a preference for elevating the status of poor and marginalized peoples. Podemos and other traditional opposition parties advocate federalist state, which they refer to as a “community of nations.”

· Friction continues between the Bolivian armed forces, who want to broaden their constitutional mandate to internal security (a traditional police mission) and guarantee the continuation of the military tribunal, and police who protested a proposal to limit its duties and income

· The structure of the Legislature, including choosing a unicameral or bicameral system, defining the number of representatives and how they will be elected is still yet to be defined. MAS has proposed a unicameral legislature composed of 70 at large (by region) representatives, 70 indigenous representatives and 27 departmental representatives. Podemos disagrees with having 70 indigenous representatives and wants to maintain two houses, 135 at large representatives in the congress and 27 senators, based on departmental population

· In the Judiciary committee there is a debate about how to introduce community justice and maintain the formal justice system at the same time. MAS supports the two types of justice as equal. Podemos rejects community justice as they fear it will be applied arbitrarily due to the unwritten nature of traditional community justice.

· The Rights and Guarantees committee has included a list of non-discrimination criteria including gender, age, culture, nationality, language, sexual orientation, gender identity, language, religion, political affiliation and philosophy, pregnancy, economic or social condition, disability, and level of education. The proposed articles guarantee water the right to water and forbids its privatization. Additionally, proposed articles protect private, individual and collective property rights. There is also a proposal to guarantee “the right to life from conception,” in essence a constitutional ban on abortion under any circumstance.

· The Citizenship Committee was unable to decide on the voting age. MAS wants to lower the voting age to 16, while Podemos wishes to keep it at 18 years old.

· The MAS proposal from the Executive Power Committee specifies that the president is elected for a five year term and may be reelected, but does not specify how many times. The Podemos proposal retains a five year term with the option to be reelected once after a “constitutional period.” Both proposals include articles defining how elected representatives’ mandates may be revoked.


The creation of a truly flexible and enduring democratic constitution, representing and protecting the rights of all citizens, will depend on the ability of elected representatives to creatively reach consensus and productive compromises that supersede political affiliations. Although the process has become increasingly chaotic and antagonistic, it reflects that Bolivians care deeply enough about the process to voice their opinions through protests and hunger strikes.

In spite of recurring frictions, a recent United Nation’s study found that 74% of the public will approve the constitution if the government, civic groups, prefects and social movement leaders cooperate. Though the process is flawed and frequently derailed, the Bolivian constitutional assembly continues to be one of the most viable scenarios for Bolivians to address longstanding fundamental conflicts. If the assembly fails to reopen, the results for Bolivia are unpredictable.

[1] La Razón. “La presión regional pone a la Asamblea bajo fuego cruzado.” August 21, 2007.
[2] La Razón. “Sucre frena la Asamblea y la deja con futuro incierto.” August 23, 2007.
[3] AIN interview with Podemos Assembly representative. August 11, 2007. Cochabamba, Bolivia.
[4] La Prensa. “Los indígenas dan ultimátum al MAS por su autonomía.” August 1, 2007.

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