The government of Evo Morales and the MAS, voted into office on a wave of public support in December 2005 , had promised at the outset to overhaul the constitution to give a bigger political voice to
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  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
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
The assembly members then found themselves unable to return in safety to
The key provisions
The main provisions of the new constitutional text  include:
* 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
* 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.
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  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
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  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
The opposition dilemma
The opposition now vows to combat the government's constitutional proposals  with all the force it can muster. But it faces a dilemma on how to proceed. The eastern departments -
The row over the constitution  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
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
The opposition will hope that, as in
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.
John Crabtree is a research associate at
Republished from Open Democracy