July 27, 2004

Its Official: Mesa Has Won Mandate, at Least for Now.

MABB is a registered TM.

The official results are out. The CNE (National Electoral Court) has published the official results of the 18th July Gas referendum. In summary, the results translate into a seemingly weak mandate for Mesa to go ahead with his policies. At least for the immediate future.

According to the results, of the 4,461,198 registered and able to vote Bolivians, 60% participated in the referendum. I ask myself where is the rest 40%? This participation rate leaves much room for doubt regarding the legitimacy of the results. Regarding question number one, which asked whether Bolivians were in favor of repealing the Hydrocarbons Law passed during Sanchez de Lozada's presidency, 87% of the people voted yes and 13% of the people voted no. On question number two, which asked whether to recover the natural gas from the multinational companies, 92% of the people voted yes and 8% voted no. On the third question asking whether to reactivate the national oil company, YPFB, 87% the people voted yes and 13% voted no.

These first three results are seen as a clear mandate for the Mesa's administration to continue with its new energy policy, recover the national resources and start the process of industrialization and export of Bolivia's natural gas with involvement of the national oil company. These three questions were the source of significant conflict for months leading up to the referendum and they are most likely to continue being a delicate point in the foreseeable future.

As for question four, which asked for permission to use the Natural Gas as a leverage to negotiate with Chile a way out to the sea (what I dubbed Gas Diplomacy), the reaction was more divided with 55% of the people voting for yes and the remaining 45% voting for no. This question had the least yes votes from all five questions. On the question about the industrialization of the Natural Gas (question number five), 62% of the people answered yes and 38% answered no. Analysts contemplate this last question might have been misunderstood. In essence it told Bolivians what the Mesa administration intended to do once the Gas was nationalized. It gave a glance into Mesa's economic and development policy. The fact that these last two questions won by such narrow margins, compared to the first three, has to be worrisome to the administration. Not only because that demonstrates these questions might have been badly formulated, but also because it shows how bad a job they did on informing the people about the real meaning of the questions. That is likely to come back to hunt Mesa. That, for sure, will become one of the arguments of the anti-referendum movements supporting their likely "I told you so" strategy.

However, the deal is done. The results are in and they are official. It is now up to Mesa to continue on its narrow path balancing his policies against the demands of a populace, by now, tired of false promises.