Bolivia: Referendum plan raises tensions

Igor Ojeda

February 28 marked a further deepening of the political crisis and polarisation in Bolivia, when the national congress, in the middle of a blockade by a section of Bolivia’s main social movements, approved a law to hold two national referendums on May 4.

One of the votes will be on whether or not to approve the proposed text for a new constitution, drafted by an elected constituent assembly. The other is a constitutional amendment that would limit large land holdings and allow a radical land reform.

Expectations are that the tension will continue throughout the whole year.

Classifying the government of left-wing indigenous President Evo Morales as “totalitarian” and “anti-democratic”, the opposition announced its scorn for the executive as they continue to push forward plans to hold autonomy referendums in the so-called half moon (made up of the opposition-controlled departments [states] of Santa Cruz, Tarija, Beni and Pando).

The opposition claims that the protests by the social movements that have surrounded parliament, and the fact that some parliamentarians were impeded from participating in the parliamentary session that voted on holding the referendums, signified an “abuse of democracy”.

The parliament also approved a law of interpretation regarding a paragraph in the law on referendum, leaving the ability to initiate departmental consultations exclusively in the hands of congress.

The issue of autonomy is included in the new constitution. Nevertheless, for the government, the autonomy statutes proposed by the resource-rich half moon are illegal.


As a response to the strategy of the government, the opposition now plans to hold its referendum on autonomy before the national vote on the constitution.

At the same time, some students and middle class sectors are preparing actions “in favour of democracy”, including in
La Paz, a strong base of support Morales.

Sociologist Eduardo Paz Rada, from the Mayor University of San Andres said that due to the rising political tension, the constitutional referendums may not be held.

“In order to hold a referendum, certain minimum conditions are needed, which are not present. For example, amongst the different social sectors in
Santa Cruz, there are strong battles” between the oligarch-backed right-wing opposition and the mass of impoverished indigenous people and social movements backing the government.

“This is intensifying in other regions of the country, including in
Potosi and La Paz. Leading up to May 4, the power groups based in the east and the government will attempt to impede the other side consolidating themselves. Whether or not the referendums are held is tied to this struggle”, Rada said.

According to Rada, there has been a clear growth of the right and a corresponding weakening of the Movement Towards Socialism (MAS — Morales’s party) since Morales’s election. He argued this is due to the incapacity of MAS to employ social force to impose its project.

Growth of the right

For Cesar Navarro, a MAS deputy, the deepening of the polarisation is due, above all, to the fact that the opposition is gaining strength at the regional level, and “has been able to gain traction for negative ideas against our government, such as that Evo is a dictator, anti-democratic, fascist, totalitarian, indigenist, etc.”.

Isaac Avalos, executive secretary of the United Union Federation of Peasant Workers of Bolivia (CSUTCB), argued that opposition forces fear losing their large landholdings if the new constitution is approved. “They are fighting for economic reasons and for land.”

According to Avalos, the approval of the referendums is fundamental, because if the new constitution is ratified, the indigenous people will be included. “We want to end discrimination, massacres, mistreatment.”

He explained that this is why the social movements have already initiated campaigns to distribute widely the text of the draft constitution.

For Navarro, who considers the current political crisis as the most significant since the foundation of the
republic of Bolivia, the objective of the opposition sectors is to overthrow the government, through a policy of destabilisation.

Faced with the approval of the referendums by congress, the opposition began to denounce the supposed abuse of democracy at the international level.

On the other hand, the executive branch denounced at the Council of Human Rights of the United Nations the existence of sectors who are conspiring against the Morales government have separatist aspirations based on wealthy east.


It is believed that, if the referendums are held, that while the “yes” vote would win, the “no” vote would win in the half moon departments in the east. This would generate a strong regional polarisation.

According to Navarro, the sectors of the half moon who support separatism possess “a high level of political influence, due not to the leadership they exercise, but rather to the fact that they control and direct the private mass media.”

In this context, Rada raised the potentially grave risk that could come from state security forces. “The bodies that have the possibility of [preventing separatism] are the armed forces and the police. And I have the impression that within these bodies there is beginning to emerge divisionist tendencies that could lead to a much more chaotic and unstable situation.”

On February 15, pro-government and opposition forces within congress had begun a discussion over the compatibility of the new constitution with the autonomy statutes launched in the half moon departments in December.

Nevertheless, there was little advance in dialogue and on February 26 a blockade of parliament by the social movements was initiated, demanding the approval of the referendums.

Pressure from below

In this context, according to Navarro, the government decided, together with the movements, to submit the constitutional text to a popular consultation. “More than a decision of imposing something, the option we took was in the sense of providing a new democratic mechanism of consultation … that delegates responsibility of the solution of the crisis to the Bolivian society”, he explained.

Rada argued that the approving of the referendums was a strategic move by Morales. “The autonomy referendums were positioned as the central and most important issue and, moreover, were advancing very rapidly, without the existence of a counter position on behalf of the government. Therefore, there was an attempt by the executive of equilibrating the initiative of sectors of the half moon.

“It was essential for MAS to take decisive action so that the issue of the constitution could position itself above, or at least, at the same level as that of the autonomy statutes”, he analysed.

Responding to the opposition’s allegation of an “abuse of democracy”, Navarro emphasised: “We are the political majority, but we are being conditioned by a political and electoral minority. They want to impede structural changes on the country. They want the minority to have the capacity of vetoing and of resolving the crisis in their favour. It is an implicit non-recognition of the emergent political majority following the results of the 2005 elections.”

Avalos justified the blockade imposed on the parliament by the social movements, explaining that, without pressure, the parliament does not function. “We were obliged to take these measures.”

[Abridged from, translated by Federico Fuentes.]

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