April 26, 2005

Will Bolivia be the next Ecuador?

MABB is a registered TM.

In the last few months we have seen a troubling trend of political deterioration in the Andean region. Specifically, we have to talk about the events in Bolivia earlier this year, and recent events in Ecuador. The events in Ecuador are particularly worrisome because they ended in a government change with unclear constitutional basis. The question now is whether what happened to Ecuador can happen in Bolivia.

I would argue that what happened in Ecuador does not necessarily have to happen in Bolivia. The reason being in Ecuador there was a general agreement that the Constitution was being violated by the government'’s actions and opposition political forces were looking for an excuse to remove Gutierrez from power.

What happened in Ecuador?

The dynamics which ended up removing Gutierrez from power in Ecuador started back in December 2004. Then, the government, in accordance with the members of its coalition (PRE and Prian), removed all the judges of the Ecuadorian Supreme Court and replaced them with its own supporters. This move was widely seen as a violation of the Constitution.

If we go back a little bit more in time, we can understand why this was done. The Gutierrez government came to power in 2002 with the backing of a leftist coalition. This coalition included Gutierrez’'s own party, PSP, the PSC, ID and PK. Soon thereafter, Gutierrez turned his back on this coalition and started seeking market friendly reforms and showing too much friendliness towards the American government. This move triggered retaliation from the now former coalition, which set in motion a power struggle between political forces within Congress to try to remove Gutierrez from power.

At one point in November 2003, the PSC, ID and Pachakutik, tried to impeach Mr. Gutierrez alleging he used state funds to promote his party’'s candidates and he illegally allowed US war ships intercept Ecuadorian boats allegedly transporting illegal immigrants on their way to the US. In order to defend himself, Mr. Gutierrez was forced to enter into a new alliance with the center-right-parties PRE and Alvaro Noboa'’s Prian. This situation changed the dynamics of power in Congress giving this new coalition a slight majority and narrowly saving Mr. Gutierrez from impeachment.

In exchange, Mr. Gutierrez was forced to support the change of the Supreme Court magistrates (at that moment under control of PSC) on December 2004. This, highly questionable move, was necessary because the Roldosista party (PRE) leader, Abdala Bucaram, had been wanting to come back to Ecuador. Bucaram fled to Panama in 1997 after he was ousted from office for “mental incapacity” and to evade corruption charges.

Since the Supreme Court justices were replaced, the Supreme Court was in an acute institutional crisis. In fact, the whole Ecuadorian Judicial branch was thrown into a crisis. This was mainly because the judicial branch is chronically politicized.

Exasperating the climate of crisis surrounding the Supreme Court, the president in turn, Gullermo Castro (PRE), in an expected move, annulled the process against Bucaram. This was seen, yet again, as another blunt violation of the Constitutional process. Additionally, as if it was not enough, Bucaram made a very immediate and public come back to Ecuador. In a speech to his supporters he stated he was back - stronger and crazier than ever.

In the subsequent weeks leading to April 20, 2005, the people of Quito went on the streets and called for Gutierrez'’s removal from office. On April 20, Gutierrez was removed by Congress in a special session held in an auditorium and Palacio was elected new president of Ecuador.

Will Mesa suffer the same end as Gutierrez?

Carlos Mesa, the Bolivian President, can perhaps learn a couple of things from Gutierrez’'s experience. One, and for sure the most important, is to never violate the Constitution. Any move that a president makes has to be within the framework of the law. Did Gutierrez not follow the law when his party and his coalition removed all the judges of the Supreme Court? I don’t know the answer to this question, because I am not a Constitutionalist. However, I do know that the Ecuadorian Congress did not have the power to do this. This power rested on the body charged with nominating the judges of the Supreme Court. Moreover, did Castro follow the law when he annulled the case against Abdala Bucaram? In this case I do know that Castro based his annulment on a technicality. The point here is Gutierrez let himself be undermined by making a series of decisions which were highly questionable (unconstitutional), to say the least.

Another thing Mesa could learn from Gutierrez’s experience is to never build a coalition and then turn its back on it. This open confrontation with opposition can be costly. Especially in a highly fragmented Congress, relations with the opposition must be in speaking terms. If the president openly defies his opposition, he closes the doors for consensus building and negotiation. This, often, means a freeze on the governments’ agenda. In the worst of cases could mean that the opposition openly seeks to remove the president from power.

Why is Bolivia a different case?

Bolivia is different from the case of Ecuador because of many reasons. First, president Mesa has not, up to now (that I know) violated the Constitution, nor anyone accuses him of a highly questionable move in benefit of his political cronies. Of course, he does not have a political party, per se, or much less a coalition. He does have, however, a group of parliamentarian supporters known as “patriotic alliance”. In contrast to Gutierrez, Mesa enjoys a high degree of approval (support) for his administration and thus legitimacy.

Second, the Judiciary branch of Bolivia is not completely politicized. In fact, it enjoys a fairly good degree of independence. Unlike the Ecuadorian Supreme Court, the Bolivian Supreme Court is seen as a legitimate institution. It might help that the Bolivian Supreme Court is geographically far away from the government (in Sucre).

Third, Mesa came to power in a comparatively more legitimate way than Gutierrez. While Gutierrez was elected to office in elections and Mesa was appointed by Congress, Gutierrez had taken part in the indigenous-military coup d'’etat which overthrew Mahuad from office. I would argue, his history as democratic leader was dubious. Additionally, he was a member of the military. A thing, which does not seat well in Latin America, for obvious reasons.

Finally, the political dynamics are just different. In Ecuador, there was a divide along political currents, Roldosistas and Prian against the popular left (Pachakutik, ID, PSC). Whereas in Bolivia, the divisions are more along social movements, while the traditional political parties struggle to maintain their representative role.

What kind of similarities can be observed between Bolivia and Ecuador?

Some similarities can definitely be observed. One, and the most obvious is, the seemingly weakness of the Executive office in both countries. In Ecuador, Gutierrez was weak because his majority was marginal and Congress did not want to act on his agenda. Often, he was left in the minority by the refusal of Prian to support Gutierrez’'s initiatives. While, in Bolivia, Mesa tried to go at it alone. He did not have a majority to rely on, or a minority for that matter. It was often, as well, that Mesa’'s initiatives were not supported or even blocked in Congress.

The previous point brings us to the next similarity. Both democratic systems rely on a multi-party system. Congress, in Ecuador and Bolivia, has a highly fragmented nature. Thus, as is already known, the need for consensus building and good relations between political factions, plus the ability of the government to build a strong coalition is important. In both countries, the governments had a poor relationship with Congress. This led to the almost permanent blockage of the government’'s agenda in Congress and the subsequent erosion of support from the electorate.

Another similarity could be argued, is the apparent rise of popular power. In the case of Bolivia, this can be observed distinctively. As we observed in the beginning of 2005, the popular rise against Mesa was (and still is) deeply rooted in social and civic organizations, rather than political parties. These social movements are shaping themselves to be an important political force within Bolivian politics. In contrast, I don’t see the same happening in Ecuador. What I see, and where the similarity ends, is on the participation of certain popular and indigenous groups, like the COINAE, which give a strong popular flavor to the disturbances in Ecuador. Nevertheless, one has to recognize that while, in this occasion, it did not seem like social movements had much participation in the removal of Gutierrez, there was some participation of popular, indigenous and civic groups in Ecuadorian politics.

Are there any implications for Bolivia?

As for any direct impact on Bolivian politics from the events in Ecuador, I think are minimal. Ecuador and Bolivia are two different countries with different circumstances. I don't think Bolivia will be the next Ecuador, but it is highly possible that President Mesa will again find himself under pressure, if this pressure from the social movements gets to a point where it is concerted.

Nonetheless, Bolivia should be attentively looking to what is going on in Ecuador. As my previous post says, the trouble in Bolivia is not over. In fact, according to the El Alto press, it’'ll start once again on May 2. This might be the last attempt before the elections in 2006 from the social movements to impose their demands on the government.

NOTE Sorry to those readers who are using Microsoft's Internet Explorer. All throughout the text, one can see small squares where apostrophes should be or in many cases in addition to apostrophes. I have tried to remove them but was unsuccessful. They do not show up in the template. They are there because I used Word to write the article (saved it in .txt format). For those using Firefox, the squares should not appear. Sorry, once again. I appologize.