Bolivia’s controversial constitution

John Crabtree

Bolivia's ruling Movimiento al Socialismo (MAS) and its allies anticipated the looming deadline for the rewriting of the country's constitution - 14 December 2007 - by approving the new 411-article constitutional draft on 8-9 December. The constituent assembly in the city of Oruro approved [1] the new text - sixteen months since its inauguration on 6 August 2006, and in the absence of the main opposition party - in only sixteen hours. The new document, which involves major institutional changes with respect to the rights of Bolivia's indigenous peoples, will be put to a referendum in 2008. But Bolivia's opposition, encouraged by Hugo Chávez's defeat [2] in the Venezuelan referendum on 2 December 2007, is promising a relentless fight to prevent it being ratified; the battlelines for a new contest between left and right are being drawn.

The government of Evo Morales and the MAS, voted into office on a wave of public support in December 2005 [7], had promised at the outset to overhaul the constitution to give a bigger political voice to Bolivia's indigenous majority. The constituent assembly, in which the MAS won more than half the seats, began its deliberations [8] in August 2006 with an initial mandate of twelve months in which to agree upon a draft constitution, with a referendum scheduled to follow.

The lengthy delays in achieving agreement on procedural issues - particularly the majority with which new articles to the constitution would be approved - meant that the deadline for completing [9] the draft text had to be postponed from 6 August to 14 December 2007. The opposition parties demanded that each and every article would have to be approved by a two-thirds majority; since they held more than a third of the seats, they knew that this would give them an effective veto.

A compromise agreement was eventually reached on this thorny issue. A further delay was then caused by the insistence of the inhabitants of Sucre [10], the colonial city where the assembly was being held, that their town should regain its former status as Bolivia's [11] full capital. Sucre had been capital up until 1899, when it was relegated to being the seat of the judiciary alone while the executive and legislature moved to La Paz. Sucre's civic committee, infuriated by the refusal of the assembly to consider this issue (and backed in their attitude by the opposition) made it effectively impossible for the assembly to convene.

The bull by the horns

In late November 2007, with the revised December deadline only days away, the Morales government finally decided to seize the initiative. It removed the plenary of the assembly to the more secure environment of a military academy just outside Sucre. Here it was surrounded by troops and MAS loyalists, provoking protests [12] from the main opposition parties, who boycotted the proceedings and instead took to the streets. In the melee that ensued, four people (three protestors and one police officer) were killed [13] and hundreds hurt. But with the opposition absent, the MAS and its left-of-centre allies speedily approved an outline constitution by an overwhelming majority.

The assembly members then found themselves unable to return in safety to Sucre, and reconvened finally in the city of Oruro on 8 December to approve the new text item by item. The approved text was - with some minor last-minute changes - that drawn up by the MAS bloc in the assembly. Podemos, the main opposition party, again absented [14] itself (apart from a brief incursion to register its protest), although the smaller Unidad Nacional (UN) did attend. The fact that the number of delegates present from the MAS and its allies was well in excess of the two-thirds required meant that the new constitution was summarily approved with little debate on the substance of the details.

The key provisions

The main provisions of the new constitutional text [15] include:

* Bolivia as a unitary but plurinational state. This provision is designed to reaffirm the significance of ethnicity in the country's make-up. In practice, however, it does not involve any major change; the previous constitution also acknowledged Bolivia to be "multi-ethnic" and "plurinational"

* State ownership of natural resources. This is designed to underpin government policies to reaffirm state control over sectors like oil and gas, privatised by previous governments. It would also affect the mining industry, which the government wants to bring under tighter state control

* Constitutional approval. Once it has been approved by referendum, the constitution will only need to be ratified by two-thirds of those present, not two thirds of the elected members

* Changing the composition of congress. The numbers in the chamber of deputies will be reduced, while the number of senators will be increased. All deputies are to be elected on a system of uninominal constituencies, replacing the previous mixed system. A proposal to scrap the senate (where the opposition has a majority) was abandoned at the last moment

* A mixed economy. This is designed to reassure business interests. Ownership in the economy will be public, private and communitarian. A referendum would be held prior to the constitutional referendum on whether private land of up to 10,000 hectares will be allowed. The 1953 agrarian reform, which limited landholding in the highlands, was never applied in the lowland departments of Santa Cruz, Beni and Pando

* Local autonomies. The constitution will bring in a system of territorial autonomies that involve a degree of decentralisation. These will include not only departmental autonomies (one of the principal demands of the opposition) but also municipal, regional and indigenous autonomies. These would act as a check on the powers of departmental governments, of which six out of nine are opposition-controlled

* Presidential re-election. Elections would be held for public office, including the presidency, once the new constitution is finally approved. The existing bar on immediate re-election for president and vice-president would be removed. Evo Morales's present term would not be included, and he would therefore be able to stand for office for two more successive terms (i.e. ten years). The new constitution would introduce a second round in presidential voting where no candidate reaches 50% of the vote, ending a system by which the newly elected congress chooses the president in such circumstances

* Recall of electoral mandates. The new constitution would provide mechanisms by which all elected officials (from the president downwards) could have their terms revoked in certain circumstances. This would include departmental prefects. These, elected only since 2005, have become a strategic bastion for the opposition

* Reorganisation of the judiciary. The indigenous systems of justice would be given the same standing in the official hierarchy as the existing system. The constitutional tribunal would have parity representation between indigenous and non-indigenous members. Judges would be elected, not appointed by congress as at present

* The capital compromise. Sucre is to be acknowledged as Bolivia's official capital, but the constitutional text does not mention where the various institutions and powers will be based. The presupposition here is that the executive and legislature will remain in La Paz, while the judiciary continues [16] to be based in Sucre. The electoral authorities are to be upgraded to a fourth power, which will also be located in Sucre.

The government's objectives

In pushing for these changes, the Morales administration has always argued that it was elected on a mandate to "refound" the country's political institutions. It therefore sees its role as bringing about "revolutionary" changes that will radically alter [17] the political system and make such changes permanent. A key long-term objective has been to increase direct democracy and reduce the barriers to participation for Bolivia's indigenous peoples and strengthen their rights.

However, in seeking to implement its agenda and make it permanent, the government is determined to reduce the spaces open to the opposition parties and to re-engineer [18] the political system to its own advantage. An increase in the number of senate seats, for example, is designed to end the opposition majority in the upper house, where the smaller eastern departments are over-represented. The senate has acted as a severe obstacle to the government's legislative agenda.

For their part, the opposition parties claim that the government is bent on establishing a one-party-dominated state that effectively spells an end to pluralism. Opposition leaders, such as former president Jorge Quiroga, have consistently argued that the government in Bolivia is just following in Chávez's footsteps. They accuse the Morales administration of seeking to monopolise [19] power indefinitely and, by entering into the Chávez orbit, drawing the country into a dangerous confrontation with the United States.

The opposition dilemma

The opposition now vows to combat the government's constitutional proposals [20] with all the force it can muster. But it faces a dilemma on how to proceed. The eastern departments - Santa Cruz in particular - have announced the intention to declare their own de facto autonomy from the government. Civic leaders in Santa Cruz claim that the constitutional text is illegal and that they will not heed it.

Santa Cruz has provided the basis for opposition to the Morales government over the last two years, though prefects and civic committees in several other departments have made common cause [21] with it. Santa Cruz has been the main growth-pole in Bolivia in recent decades, stimulated mainly by agribusiness and hydrocarbons. Civic leaders there and other resource-rich departments argue that more of the wealth these sectors generate should return to them. For generations, the assertive Comité Pro-Santa Cruz has demanded greater autonomy from the central government in La Paz, even on occasion threatening secession.

The row over the constitution [22] apart, the government has infuriated local prefects by threatening to apportion some of the rents these receive to pay for a new national pensions scheme. The so-called Renta Dignidad (dignity pension) would afford a monthly pension to all those over the age of 60. This sort of universal entitlement for the elderly is immensely popular in Bolivia, but the Renta Dignidad also aims [23] to cut the resources available to the prefects from increased taxes on hydrocarbons. For the opposition, therefore, the policy seems a cynical exercise by the government to win public support at its expense.

However, other more moderate voices may seek to challenge the government by orchestrating a "no" vote in the referendum on the constitution. In fact, there are two referenda planned. The first will be on the issue of landownership in the lowlands - itself a direct challenge to the wealthy landowners of Santa Cruz and the Beni. This will take several months to organise. If approved, it will then be subsumed into the constitution, and this then will be put before voters in a second referendum. It therefore seems unlikely that Bolivia's constitution will be definitely settled much before the latter part of 2008.

The opposition will hope that, as in Venezuela, the majority will in the end vote "no". For his part, Morales will be counting on his ability to maintain his popularity over this period. But the conflicts over the constitution have done little to enhance his government's reputation. And with inflation rising and real incomes failing to keep up, the opposition parties will hope they can broaden their support.

If the government's calculation proves sound and the answer is "yes", the electoral momentum would carry it through to a period of fresh elections - probably in 2009 - for president, vice-president and members of congress. Bolivia's struggle for power therefore promises to be extended as well as bitter.

John Crabtree is a research associate at Oxford University's Centre for Latin American Studies [3]. He is (on Bolivia) author of Patterns of Protest: Politics and Social Movements in Bolivia (Latin America Bureau, 2005 [4]) and co-editor of Unresolved Tensions: Bolivia Past and Present (Pittsburgh University Press [5], [forthcoming] 2008); and (on Peru) author of Peru under Garcia: Opportunity Lost (Macmillan, 1992) and Fujimori's Peru (ILAS, 1998), and editor of Making Institutions Work in Peru: Democracy, Development and Inequality since 1980 (Institute for the Study of the Americas, London University / Brookings Institution, 2006 [6])

Republished from Open Democracy


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