January 19, 2008

The Balance of Power in Bolivia

MABB © ®

The quest for the consolidation of power for the Morales government seems to go on, with visible results, but not without difficulties. The Morales government has been, since its coming to power, visibly trying to consolidate its grip on power by securing the support of important institutions within the government. As a result of the December 2005 general elections, not only there was a new president, but also an almost complete new lower chamber in Congress. The government now firmly has the control of the Chamber of Deputies, where MAS, Morales' party, has the majority of votes. The result is that the president has no trouble passing legislation through the lower chamber. Already there are critics that say the lower chamber is just a rubber stamp for the government.

The Senate, on the other hand, is firmly in control of the opposition. This is the reason why it is still problematic for Morales to pass his legislative initiatives without being observed. In effect, there are also critics, among those from the government, that say the Senate deliberately stops governmental initiatives to try to brake the government's plans. In recent days, the Senate has chosen a new president. To the delight of the opposition and the disgust of the government, he is from the opposition too.

With in the last weeks, the government has appointed a new president to the National Electoral Court (CNE). The former president finished his term in January and could not (or did not want to) stand for re-election. Under his presidency, though, the CNE successfully conducted elections in the last five years, with international praise on transparency, efficiency and independence. The new president (Jose Luis Exeni), however, is a declared militant of MAS. He has already shown some masista tendencies by trying to stop the process for the referenda on the autonomy statutes in the cities controlled by the opposition. Some observers have pointed out to the fact that Exeni has worked, in the CNE, during the Sanchez de Lozada government. How much of a supporter of the Morales government and how much is he willing to comply with the government's intentions, will only be seen as time goes by. One thing has become clear in recent days though, the decentralization structure of the electoral court will work against any attempt from Exeni to partialize the institution, as recent events have shown. The Santa Cruz Electoral Court has disregarded the opinion and instructions from the central office, located in La Paz. This is a symbol of independent action by the Santa Cruz Electoral Court.

One more institution is still for grabs, the Judicial branch. There are two important courts in the Bolivian justice system, the Supreme Court and the Constitutional Court. These two have the ultimate say on what is legal or not legal or what is constitutional and what is not. In addition, the Attorney General post is still unofficially occupied. The membership of both courts and that of the AG still need to be designated by the National Congress, with a 2/3 vote of the members from the two chambers. That is why is taking so long for the government to appoint its people in those important posts.

When the government successfully appoints people who are supporters of MAS to all these posts, it will have gained more control of what is to be decided in the country, when important decisions are to be made. I don't need to walk you through of the possibilities showing the importance of those posts. One example will have to suffice. As above already mentioned, Exeni, the new president of the CNE told the Santa Cruz Electoral Court to hold on to the revision of the signatures collected to start the referendum process to approve the autonomy statutes. The Santa Cruz Electoral Court should wait until the Congress issues a legal opinion of whether the revision of signatures is legal or not. In addition, it should wait until the Constitutional Court also issues an opinion regarding the same problem. If the Congress and the Constitutional Court declare the revision of signatures illegal, the referendum process has to be stopped and the statutes cannot be approved by the population.

The question is, is the Morales government on the verge of consolidating its power in the government? Unfortunately the answer is not that easy, as the decentralization of the electoral court has shown. It will only make sense to talk about consolidation of power when the government expressly and effectively controls these institutions and through them the rest of the nation, including the subsidiary institution in the opposing regions. Although, as seen on the example above, if the government controls the courts, it can theoretically declare anything illegal, and so stop the opposition.