Our Constituent Assembly: A highly legitimate institution, but under pressure


Unlike other constituent processes carried out in the Andean region in the past decade, the Bolivian Constituent Assembly arises from and consolidates public debate as a privileged response to the crisis of the state by social movements and, more generally, by civil society. This demand is processed by a political system undergoing reform and is then incorporated into the national political agenda in a context marked by the aspirations of a wide spectrum of political and social actors involved in the re-founding of the country. What is more, it is being carried out with the broad backing of public opinion. It is important to remember this precedent at times like these, when some voices suggest the possibility of closing the Assembly down. The results of two urban-rural surveys carried out in all nine departments of the country, between December of 2005 and June of 2006; show the consistent support of Bolivians for the fulfillment of the Assembly on the eve of its summons and installation. As a whole, Bolivians valued the Assembly as a new institution of the Bolivian democracy.

Beyond distrust

Amongst the main reasons explaining citizen's broad support for the Constituent Assembly are the necessity "to have more suitable laws", the prospect of " changing and improving Bolivia and the life of its citizens" and the "participation of all the Bolivians in the enhancement of democracy". The results of June of 2006 show Bolivians´ confidence inspired by the Assembly is significant: 52 percent of citizens trust "a lot" or "enough" in the Assembly, as opposed to only the 24 percent who say they have "little" or "no" trust in the institution. On the eve of its installation, the Assembly is one of the institutions enjoying the greatest credibility amongst the citizenship. And its legitimacy is national, as much in the east as in the west; in urban as in rural areas.

Various studies of public opinion made in the region consistently show that Bolivians and the Latin Americans tend to distrust the political party system. It's not a coincidence that even during the moments of greatest legitimacy of the constituent process; citizens support the institution rather than the individual representatives. In fact, at the beginning of the sessions, six out of ten inhabitants of the main cities of the country thought that the elected representatives would work first for their own or their party's interests before those of the of the nation and the people. This tendency refers to well established assumptions of the citizenship: one positive, which considers the Constituent Assembly to be the place where profound changes in democracy are carried out; and the other negative, which refers to critical perceptions of the political system's dynamics.

But if a majority of Bolivians hope that representatives in the Assembly make decisions based on their personal and party interests, how could they possibly trust the Assembly's results? The key to understanding this apparent contradiction probably lies in the participative nature that Bolivians grant the process. Despite the fact that a pre-Constituent Assembly period was never made official, organized society was formulating proposals for constitutional reform, at least, since the political will to summon the Assembly was made public in October of 2003.

For that reason, both perceptions "self-representation" as well as "social control" are pretty well established amongst all the country's citizens. In August of 2007, six out of ten inhabitants of the main cities thought that it was the people who participated and made decisions in the Constituent Assembly, whereas only one in three considered that this was the sole responsibility of the Assembly's elected representatives.

This elusive legitimacy

Without a doubt, whatever happens in the next months (weeks or days) in the Constituent Assembly will have a decisive impact on the perceptions and expectations of Bolivians with respect to the process of change. For that reason one may ask if, in the midst of a polarized, critical, and pessimistic climate of public opinion regarding the different proposals for constitutional reform, approval for the Constituent Assembly will also drop. In fact this is already happening and the Assembly has lost some of its legitimacy. Nevertheless, it is important to state that, paradoxically, the point of greatest approval for the Assembly was indeed at the most critical and complex moment that it had to navigate (until now): in December of 2006, when most of the creators of public opinion were warning of its possible failure, almost six out of ten Bolivians indicated that they approved of the Assembly's work.

Does that presume that Bolivians value the Assembly more when conflicts make headlines, and that this support drops when the commissions are bottled up in their work and give way to in-depth technical and political debates? How is it that in December 2006 approval ratings were higher in the midst of a profound polarization and that the level of representation is higher in February 2007 when the debates had not even yet begun?

The positive perception that Bolivians associate with the Constituent Assembly (a participative process of Constitutional reform for benefit of the most needy), forms a "common knowledge" which citizens use to decipher and interpret the messages emanating from political and social actors and which are broadcast and amplified by the mass media.

With the question of the location of the country's capital still unresolved, along with the many pressures mounting on the Constituent Assembly, the question about its future and its results continues to be subject to the decisions made as much inside as outside the Gran Mariscal Theater in Sucre.

Source: The state of opinion. PNUD and IDEA International. July 2007.

Translated from Pulso by Alan Forsberg

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