A series of votes on regional autonomy is testing Evo Morales's political project and challenging Bolivians to find new ways of living together, says John Crabtree.
The leftwing government of Evo Morales suffered a significant political reverse on
The rightwing opposition to Morales has so far been concentrated in the lowland departments of the east, the so-called media luna ("half-moon") made up of
Until 2005, the office of prefect had been a central-government appointee, responsible - essentially - for law and order. The election of prefects for the first time that year changed their status, giving the office much greater visibility and legitimacy. The full implications of this were largely lost on the MAS in 2005, whose efforts went more into selecting candidates for the chamber of deputies and the senate than for prefects. In those elections, held at the same time as the elections for president and congress, the MAS candidates won in only three departments,
The election of Savina Cuéllar, the opposition candidate, as the new prefect therefore represents an important incursion into what would normally be considered a MAS heartland. It also means that the number of departments demanding autonomy is now in a majority: five out of nine, as opposed to the media luna quartet. Cuéllar, a former MAS supporter with a long track-record of working with the indigenous women's movement, had strong electoral credentials. The early unofficial figures suggested that she had won by 55%-40% against the official MAS candidate, Walter Valda; on 2 July, the definitive results released by the electoral authorities showed a closer outcome of 51.58%-44.17%, with the remainder going to the small Alianza Social (see "Cuéllar es Prefecta con 51%", Correa Del Sur, 2 July 2008).
The autonomy wind
The opposition camp has been able to make the running in a series of local referenda over autonomy in the last two months. These began on 4 May in
The government, for its part, claimed that the referenda were illegal and that the autonomy statutes represented a gross violation of the constitution. The
The international community - in particular the Organisation of American States (OAS) failed in its attempts to broker talks between the four eastern departments and the government to resolve the issue prior to it going to a vote. A group of "friendly" countries - including
Unsurprisingly, those voting "yes" to greater departmental autonomy outnumbered those voting "no", by as much as four to one. However, large numbers respected the government's position that they should abstain from voting, particularly in areas where the MAS is strong.
The political land
Behind the issue of departmental autonomies is a deeper conflict between a leftwing government and its opponents over the whole direction of the former's agenda for change, in particular to constitutional reform. The MAS, elected in a landslide victory in December 2005, was committed to a radical reform agenda, including the rewriting of the existing (1967) constitution to make the political system more representative of the country's indigenous population.
An elected constituent assembly began its work in
There are further key areas where the ruling MAS and the opposition are divided. They include the opposition's hostility to a programme of land reform in eastern
The issue which first led to the turnaround in support for the MAS in Chuquisaca is what has become known as capitalía plena, the claim by
It was the violent anti-government demonstrations over the issue of capitalía that forced the constituent assembly to abandon the city of
In the wake of the four media luna referenda on autonomy, the civic authorities in Sucre are now intent on pushing forward with their own autonomía, over and above the city's demands for capitalía plena to be recognised. Here their demands are arguably less well-founded than those of their media luna counterparts. In a referendum that the assembly make proposals for autonomy for those departments voting "yes", Chuquisaca (in common with the rest of highland
The plebiscitary wave
To add to the current plethora of referenda,
More at risk, however, are the eight prefects (all except Chuquisaca) who will also have to submit themselves to recall. In each case, they were elected by smaller margins than Morales and García Linera, and therefore will need to rally more support to stay in office. The most recent polls suggest that a majority of prefects may lose their positions; if so this will be a blow to the opposition which has employed its control of these elected positions to further its cause and give itself valuable political exposure.
Those with the greatest chances of losing are José Luis Paredes, the Podemos prefect of
The recall referendum - ironically the result of an opposition initiative in congress - thus provides Evo Morales with an important opportunity to turn the tables on some of his key adversaries, while enhancing his own legitimacy if he proves able to increase his 2005 margin of victory. He has now started active campaigning for 10 August, hoping to capitalise on pro-government sympathies in the most populous parts of the country, particularly in rural areas (see Carlos Macias, "Electoral rifts in
Whatever the result of the recall referendum, the deep divides that bedevil Bolivian politics are set to persist, placing further strain on the country's weak democratic institutions. A victory on 10 August would reaffirm the government's resolve to push ahead with its chosen agenda, particularly with regard to holding yet another referendum this time to ratify the new constitutional text. For its part, the opposition may feel obliged to resort to ever more audacious plans to thwart the government and its policies. The battlelines will therefore be drawn for further conflicts to come.
John Crabtree is a research associate at
Republished from OpenDemocracy