March 05, 2015

Elections 2014: Distribution of Power in National Assembly


Evo Morales and his party MAS were the winners of last year's Bolivian general elections, that much was clear shortly after election day. However, the question on how much power did the MAS acquired this time around has taken a bit longer to clear out. Above all, the government took some time to count the votes, to investigate some allegations of electoral fraud and, finally, to officially publish the list of elected congress members. To that delay, I have to add the fact that I did not have too much time to publish anything in the last months. Nevertheless, I am publishing now these three graphs below which illustrate the power structure in the Bolivian assembly.

The main question has been: How much power does Morales have in congress this time around? Does he have enough support to change the constitution, if he wants to remain in power beyond this term?

This question has already been answered in percentages terms with the publication of the official results, which you can find here. However, just knowing what percentage of the popular vote did Morales and the MAS get does very little to let us imagine the magnitude of support he will be enjoying within the assembly in his last term in office.

To see this, first of all, lets remember the Bolivian Plurinational Legislative Assembly, as is officially named, is made up of both, the Senate and the Chamber of Deputies. The Senate has 36 members and the Chamber of Deputies has 130. The National Assembly is constituted when these both chambers come together, and as such it has a total of 166 members.

Also, lets remember that from what is described in the 2009 Constitution's section about the legislative branch, Bolivia uses the term absolute majority and means the formula 50% + 1. This is how decisions are made in the assembly and this is how laws are passed. At the same time, this would mean the MAS would need to control just one vote more than half the number of each chamber's members.

The graphs below show just how many congressional seats each party controls in each chamber.

To make it explicit, the MAS comfortably controls both chambers. In the Senate, which would require 19 members to have an absolute majority, the MAS has 25 votes. In the lower chamber, which would require 66 votes for an absolute majority, the MAS has 84.

What is more, in an assembly with 166 total members, such as the Bolivian assembly, the government party needs to have 84 members in order to control the passing of legislation. In the graph above, the governing party MAS has 109 members. That is well over the number required to obtain an absolute majority, namely 84 votes.

But, the question about constitutional reform remains. Now, the 2009 constitution states there are two forms of constitutional reform, one is total/substantial and the other is denoted partial reform. The difference lies in the fact that the first type means a change in the character of the constitution, i.e. rights, state form, values, etc. The second type reform can be a minor change, say in the number of terms allowed for the president to stay in office. The first type needs an almost constitutional assembly process where the reform is debated and, in the end, has to be voted on through a referendum. The second type of reform can be initiated by popular initiative or by the national assembly issuing a constitutional reform law. In the end, this reform too, has to be approved by referendum. However, the key factor is this law has to be approved by the two-thirds rule (so called qualified majority) with ONLY all the present members.

Now, if we make some math, the MAS would require to have 111 MAS congress members in a full National Assembly to be able to pass the reform law. As we stand, MAS has 109 and therefore is 2 seats short of a 2/3 majority. However, this should not present a problem because the constitution mentions the word 'present' in the formulation of the text. This means, the MAS has to have support of 2/3 of all the members present at the day of voting. So, 111 is not a magic number, In fact, the magic number depends on the attendance to the assembly on that day.

This seems like a very comfortable situation for the MAS. The hurdles to make a substantial or total change to the constitution are pretty high, but the hurdles to make 'partial' adjustments are not so high.

Now, I said that this picture was already clear as the results came out. However, the graphic illustration of the situation makes it even more clear. Besides, since I did not see such graphics in any other place, I figured I should put them out there.


Now, Bolivia, as many other nations, makes use of the absolute majority concept in order to take decisions in Congress. However, it is important to highlight that in Bolivia (and maybe in the Latin American region), the meaning of absolute majority is different from what we mean in the Western world, and with that I mean pretty much the US and Europe. In this "world", absolute majority is a form of a qualified majority which denotes the use of fractions such as 2/3 to distinguish it from a simple majority which is a majority gained with the formula 50% + 1 vote. Qualified majorities are used to address various reasons, chief among them, to raise the hurdle for more important issues such as the amendment of a constitution.