On February 21, 2016 Bolivian voters have to head to the voting booths again because the Morales government wants them to decide whether the President, Evo Morales (it is not decided yet whether the current VP will run again too), can run for president again in 2020. Morales needs to win this referendum because his government has to amend the 2009 Constitution to allow him to run for president again. As if it was not the case every time, voters are yet again confronted with a hard choice. This time around, however, it will not just be about whether or not to support Morales and his policies, instead it will be about whether Bolivians want continued political stability, on the one side, or whether they want to strengthen their democratic process, on the other side.
If we define political stability in terms of the absence of general strikes, blockades and continued confrontation between the government and organized society, so that the government is able to govern, i.e. administer, pass laws and carry out its agenda; as well as the regular continuation of the political process whereas there are regular free and fair elections, the passing of laws through the legislative process and the regular work of an opposition; we can more or less talk about the last ten years in Bolivia as being a politically stable period.
To start of, the arrival of the Morales government to office has meant for Bolivia practically the end of endless confrontations between the government and organized society. If we remember the 2000 - 2005 period, we cannot do otherwise than remember the political and social crisis the country lived through. I covered in this blog that process extensively. That period was characterized by devastating general strikes, road blockades and demonstrations which often forced the closing of government at the national and departmental levels and meant millions of loses for the economy. Added to that, there was the several deaths which were the result of such confrontations. In contrast, during the last decade, the level, and above all the quality, of conflict decreased significantly. While there is still conflict between government and organized society, the quality and quantity of conflict is nowhere near the levels of the mentioned period.
Second, because the level of conflict between society and government has been lower in intensity, the political process has been able to continue on. In that sense, for example, since Morales took office in January 2006, there have been ten elections (between referenda and national and subnational elections), each of which have been observed by national and international observers and have been deemed as free and fair. Another example is the routine in which the legislative process has been conducted. The Congress has been able to routinely pass new legislation, that is laws which have been necessary to implement the creation of a new state. However, I do know this point is weak because the MAS has controlled 2/3 of Congress and as such it has pretty much been able to pass all these laws without opposition. But again, while the opposition might have been at a loss, other groups (such as the lowlands indigenous groups, some groups in the mining sector and some groups in the largest cities), even within the MAS, have played an important role and have forced many times the government to either negotiate some policy or in some cases to accept their demands replacing thus government policy. This has bee a particular characteristic of Bolivian politics today.
Third, and as a result of the above, the government has had plenty of room to govern. Namely, it has had the time to design policy, pass it through Congress and implement it. Compared to prior government, that simply has not been the case. Morales has founded a new state in his first presidential period. He has also been able to gain control of many economic sectors such as the natural gas, telecommunications, electricity industries. Him and his government have had the time to create legislation practically from scratch during his second term. Most laws passed since the creation of the Plurinational State in 2009 have replaced older legislation. Today he is continuing his agenda by consolidating the nationalization of many industries and the diversification of the economy.
The Strengthening of the Democratic Process
To start of, and for the sake of the argument, I just want to highlight the fact that Bolivia, throughout the Morales government, has been defined as a democracy. Of course, depending on which measure you rely on, you might qualify Bolivia as a weak democracy, as a partly free democracy, as a simply democracy (as opposed to full democracy), and even as a flawed democracy. However, there is little doubt that Bolivia still belongs to the democracy column as opposed to the authoritarian column.
But as highlighted by the several qualifications for the Bolivian democracy, under the Morales government, there has been a lot of skepticism about the democratic process. Many observers (here I include myself) of the Bolivian process, have highlighted the many governmental actions that have contributed to the opinion that Morales has had an authoritarian tendency and that as a result the democratic process has suffered. Examples of these actions have been the manner in which Morales and his government have dealt with opposition leaders, even those elected to office. The Attorney General's office has taken to court an unusual number of opposition leaders, many of which were even removed from elected office with the help of legislation allowing such actions. Another point for criticism has been legislation passed by Congress which resulted in de facto establishing self-censorship in the media. The law against racism and all types of discrimination has the potential to sanction any statement that can be interpreted as racist or discriminatory. But above all, the perceived tendency from the part of President Morales to want to stay in power indefinitely is the reason for vivid debate. Morales is technically in his third presidential period, but in 2010 he managed to pass a law which allowed him to start counting from 2010 because a new state was created, namely the Plurinational State. Currently, the February referendum is about asking the population whether his Congress can amend the 2009 Constitution to allow him to run for another period.
If the Bolivian people chooses to vote for the Yes, it will be basically voting to have continuity. That means, to allow Morales to keep on working in his "process of change", i.e. implementing his agenda and to have the same political stability that up to now has characterized Bolivia. If the Bolivian people chooses to vote for the No, it will be strengthening its democratic process (by international standards), but it could also mean a new period of instability, be it political or social.