July 08, 2004

Legality of the Referendum

MABB is a registered TM.

In a race against time, the two chambers of the Bolivian legislative branch, passed on Tuesday, July 6th, the law giving, the oncoming 18 July Referendum, legality. At the same time, even more confusion was added by Congress passing this law due to the change of the word "obligatory" for "voluntary".

The law Frame for the Referendum (Ley Marco del Referendum) was passed on Tuesday, July 6th by the Senate and Deputy chambers. There was a great deal of negotiation and compromise to reach that outcome. The law gives legality to the Referendum and adds some more aspects to the decree calling for the Referendum made by president Mesa on April 13, 2004.

Most markedly, this law silences criticism about the unconstitutionality of the Referendum. Political parties such as New Republican Force (NFR, Spanish acronym), Indigenous Movement Pachakuti (MIP) and a long list of civic and union organizations have been trying to stop the popular vote. One of their arguments was the unconstitutionality of the Referendum, because it did not have a legal frame.

The law also adds several modalities to the mechanism. Chiefly, it provides for the possibility to call to a Referendum at the national, departmental and municipal levels. Each of which, would try to address questions directly related to the level it was called for. This specific aspect comes out of the negotiation and compromise within the Congress. Several factions, specially the ones from Santa Cruz, were in favor of including localized mechanisms.

On the negative side, the new law also brings more confusion to the Referendum. Mostly because of the wording used to express the degree of obligation to vote. On his call to vote, president Mesa stated that voting was "obligatory". On the new law, the Congress gives the choice to vote by exchanging the word "obligatory" by "voluntary". Congress argues that a Referendum is just a form of a popular consultation (in this case binding for the government) and as such, it should be voluntary. The government as well as the National Electoral Court (CNE, by its Spanish acronym) argue that the vote is mandated by law. Mesa recently turned his April 13th decree into law.

This new discrepancy affects how the Referendum is seen nationally. Specially when the "abstention" campaign is gathering momentum. Various organizations and political parties nationally are working on an abstention campaign. This campaign, driven by campesino organizations, the Bolivian Workers Central (COB), Regional Workers Central (COR El Alto), Movement without Land (MST), MIP and CSUTCB (led by Quispe), etc., aims to take away any legitimacy the results could potentially show.