January 27, 2009

Bolivia: Divided We Stand

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One only needs to take a look at this graph to see the result of last Sunday's referendum on the Oruro Constitution (approved in December 2007 in Oruro). While the result at the national level was 61.6% approval against 38.3% rejection, it became even more evident that the country is geographically divided between the YES and NO votes. The denominated media luna (the green/NO part) region voted, at times overwhelmingly, to reject the new constitution and the other Bolivia (in blue/SI) readily accepted it.

Actually, if we guide ourselves by the map, it looks as though the constitution should have been rejected. The green area is bigger than the blue. The favorable result for the SI vote was determined by the number of voters in the cities of La Paz and El Alto. For the number of voters in these two cities see my post last week. The fact that there is such a large region of the country that voted NO points to a very serious problem which the government is bound to feel, and which will be the reason why the country will continue on this path of political turmoil. In the media luna region, there is the general feeling that the Oruro Constitution was not approved, even though they recognize its success at the national level. Moreover, based on the per province referendum results, the approval of the constitution is not obvious. What is obvious is that this new social contract has been clearly rejected by these regions. Therefore, the opposition leaders demand a national "dialogue" to duscuss in which ways the government is to implements the new social contract. In the words of Santa Cruz Prefect, Ruben Costas, "...the government should not delay the implementation of autonomies, should compromise positions in the negotiations, should work towards a national accord, and [above all] not impose the new constitution". Should the government not do this, the opposition has warned, they will not to follow the new constitutional rules and continue ahead with its autonomic path.

The opposition is skeptical because the executive has repeatedly played the confusion card where it agrees to one thing and does the opposite. In addition Morales himself has shown its intention to march ahead with the implementation of the new constitution, regardless what the opposition does or says. He is preparing a set of new laws to start the process. The government's first steps will be to pass the new laws regulating the electoral process, the hydrocarbons sector, taxes, civil and penal codes, land redistribution, how to reorganize the Executive and how to implement autonomy.

For the moment, it seems the opposition has chosen to make a distinction between what the constitution actually says and how will it be interpreted and, in the end, implemented. That is one reason why the opposition, once the constitution has already become the supreme law of the land, still asks the government for consensus. They want a say in drafting all the new rules of the game. For its part, the government has expressed its intention only to negotiate one issue with the opposition, namely how to adapt the province constitutions or statutes to the new constitutional framework. This is of course too little for the opposition.

There are two fundamental questions that come to mind as a result of this outcome. Why is Bolivia so divided? and What happens now? In what follows, I intend to list, and by no exhaustive means, the issues dividing Bolivia. Also, I will attempt to recount what will be the next steps in this most interesting process.

What are the divisions?

At the general level, it can be argued that Bolivia is divided because, at the moment, there is a fierce power struggle between new vs. traditional political elites, in which the new elites are about the displace the traditional ones. This power struggle has heavy socio-economic and ethnic components. At the same time, these two groups are divided in their conception of what the country should look like. On the one hand, the traditional side sees no reason why the current legal framework, partly based on the current democratic model, as well as trade, private property, private investment, etc., should be changed. On the other side, the new elites prefer to give the state a pivotal role in all social, economic and political aspects in the country. They also want to highlight the socio-ethnic aspect. This is, more or less, a short picture at the most general level. At the more specific level there are several issues to be considered. For example:

How to implement autonomy - If the government tries to force its point of view, without, at the same time, making some concessions to the opposition, the divisions are bound to widen even more. So far, the government used a confronting rhetoric with the opposition. It repeatedly pointed out that Morales has the support of the majority. It can back that claim by citing last year's recall referendum and now the approval of its constitution. However, that is not enough for the opposition, since Morales does not enjoy overwhelming support in the media luna. That is his basic problem. He lacks legitimacy in the region. That is the major reason why the opposition will still attempt to place Morales against the wall and force some kind of agreement at the moment of passing the laws. Otherwise, the radicalization of the attitudes are bound to follow.

The new electoral code - The new rules to elect the representatives will be an important issue. The new code must specify how will the President and Vice President be elected. Who will get elected and with which margins. Most important will be the distribution of seats in Congress. This will most likely set the balance of power. The opposition want to make sure the weight is not tilted towards Morales.

Land re-distribution - The way in which the government re-possesses land and re-distributes it is also bounded to create some tensions. Now that the question of how large land in private hands should be is cleared, the pressing issue will be whose land will the government take back. Most likely the owners of these lands will make it difficult for the government to take away their land. In fact, they are already up in arms and, I am guessing, heavily investing in the opposition forces to represent them politically. Most important will be who will be able to claim some of this land from the government. These people, the landless, are also a force to reckon with. Some people from the landless movement MST have already started occupying some government lands.

The new hydrocarbons law - The government has expressed its intention to design a law re-distributing the money coming from the export of natural gas to the Western provinces. Currently, the provinces where the natural gas is recovered receive more that the other provinces. There is a compensatory percentage. The problem will be if the government decides to increase this compensation and the producing provinces feel disadvantaged by the new rules.

The Sucre's claim to be the capital city - A major issue to keep Bolivia divided is the demand Sucre makes to discuss the future of the capital of Bolivia. Originally, as Bolivia was founded, Sucre was the capital of Bolivia. In 1809 the government seat and the legislative branch were moved to La Paz. Since then, Sucre has been periodically trying to recover its status as capital city. During this last Constitutional Assembly process, the opposition encouraged Sucre's demand and thus gained one more allied. Since then, Sucre has been loud in asking a debate over this issue.

TLC with the UE - In commercial terms, the division is more or less orthodox. The government rejects a TLC from principle, and the opposition supports Bolivia's engagement in the globalization process. This is more prone to touch the private industry sector and middle sized export firms.

What is to come?

On February 20, the CNE will present the final report on the January 25 referendum. Congress will approve it and will present it to the President. The President then signs it into law. Once this happens, Congress has 60 days to pass a provisional electoral code. This law will be the legal framework for the general election of December 6, 2009. The President, the Vice President and all members of Congress will be elected on this date. Once the new "National Plurinational Assembly" (that is the name) is convened, it has to sanction several laws taking no longer than 180 days. These laws are: laws regulating the new electoral agency, the Judicial branch, the Constitutional Tribunal, as well as drafting the new electoral code and the framework regulating the decentralization and autonomic processes.

My take is that 2009 will be plagued by electoral campaigns and the fight in Congress to pass those new laws. And of course, more marches, demonstrations and strikes. Why not!