Bolivia: Evo Morales Moves to Centre Stage for Historic January 25th Referendum
January 21, 2009 - Council on Hemispheric Affairs


  • Often delayed constitutional referendum now scheduled for Sunday, January 25th, with government projected to win comfortably.
  • President Evo Morales takes to a last-minute offensive with anti-opposition rhetoric and arrests, and with plans to establish new state-owned newspaper along with another TV network.
  • Despite optimistic government expectations surrounding referendum, 2009 likely to be characterised more by strife than compromise.

President Evo Morales is beginning 2009 hoping for a quick and decisive resolution to the political turmoil which has characterised his presidency to date. The much-delayed referendum to ratify Morales’ new constitution – originally intended to take last May – is now scheduled to be held on Sunday, January 25th. Polls indicate that Morales is comfortably on course to win the vote, although by a lesser margin than the 50-point landslide suggested in a survey conducted by the Observatorio de Gestión Pública (OGP or Centre for Public Management in Bolivia) and published by the government on January 4th.

The document on whose adoption the electorate will vote is a wide-ranging one, designed in the eyes of MAS (Morales’ ruling Movimiento al Socialismo) senator Felix Rojas to “refound” the Bolivian nation. It basically provides for increased autonomy for regional and local governments, as well as for indigenous groups. Further, the rights of Bolivia’s indigenous population would be enshrined in law for the first time, guaranteeing them representation in Congress and recognising their property rights as legal members of the community. The legitimacy of Morales’ various moves toward nationalising industries would also be underscored, and the project expanded.

Accompanying the constitutional referendum will be a second vote, through which the public will decide on the exact detail of another of Morales’ proposals, a land reform measure which is intended to achieve a more balanced distribution of resources in a country where two-thirds of the land is owned by one per cent of the population. Voters are being presented with a choice between capping individual landholdings at 5,000 or 10,000 hectares, as the constituent assembly failed to reach agreement on the issue in its debates.

The Path to Referendum
The constituent assembly first approved the draft constitution for presentation to Congress on November 23rd 2007, despite an opposition boycott which had argued that there had not been sufficient delegates present in the assembly to pass the document by the required two-thirds majority. Indeed, MAS’ movement of the assembly to various alternative locations, along with the absence of many delegates, made the document’s approval hardly legal or legitimate. Violence that had accompanied the assembly’s debates on the constitution immediately flared up once again, with the BBC reporting “at least three” deaths occurring in related street protests in de jure capital Sucre. The opposition’s continued boycott of the process saw it launch an attempt to achieve autonomy for the wealthy and educated, opposition-dominated eastern provinces of the country in May 2008, and a presidential recall referendum forced in August, which was won by the government. Consequently, proposed dates in May and September the constitutional referendum’s staging came and went, prompting some analysts to predict a brutal civil war and the likely disintegration of Bolivia.

Morales has, however, been able to adroitly take advantage of the factionalism which has recently emerged in the opposition Podemos alliance. Turning to diplomacy after his followers had engaged in months of political wrangling with an increasingly hostile opposition, the president, to his credit, managed last October to placate the moderates among his adversaries with a series of compromises. Indeed, COHA lauded the willingness to compromise shown by Morales in its November 19, 2008 statement, “Bolivia: Conflict and Compromise in La Paz, as Morales Visits Washington.” COHA also suggested at the time that Morales’ efforts at diplomacy were aided by the results of last August’s recall referendum – which saw the president win by a landslide – and the anti-opposition repercussions which immediately followed September’s tragedy in Pando where 18 MAS supporters were massacred, allegedly on the instructions of its Podemos prefect Leopoldo Fernández.

Morales reportedly gave the opposition his assurance that he would not seek re-election in late 2014, provided he wins a second term this December, despite the draft constitution’s provision allowing for one repeat presidential term. With this strategy, he has at least delayed Bolivia’s descent into the same fierce storm which surrounds Hugo Chávez’s proposed constitutional reforms in Venezuela. Furthermore, the key source of opposition to the constitution, the eastern provinces of the ‘Media Luna’ region, were placated with a guarantee that the constitution’s reform to cap landholdings would not be applied retroactively.

As a result of Morales’ efforts as well as his flexibility – and in the face of a brewing storm of angry MAS members outside in the streets of La Paz – on October 21st, Congress finally accepted Morales’ constitution by the required two-thirds majority. Having seen two previous votes postponed as a result of widespread violence, aided by legal backing and newfound broad political support for the referendum, Morales now has grounds to be more optimistic of electoral progress upon the third occasion of asking for it.

The Campaign Heats Up: Morales on the Offensive Against Media and Church
Having secured opposition support for the referendum and a comfortable lead in the polls, recent weeks have seen Morales take to the offensive, announcing on January 4th the government’s intention to launch a state-run newspaper, as well as a second public TV station – with a remit to “report the truth” – in the face of overt hostility from the established media. Indeed, Morales three weeks earlier had banished all national journalists from his press conferences on account of their supposedly biased reporting. Two days later, on January 6th, the president launched a verbal assault on the leaders of the country’s Catholic Church, whom he accused of siding with the opposition. Bishops and priests in Sucre had, according to Morales, been imploring the congregation at a day of prayer to “Choose God, vote for no”, in response to the constitution’s tacit provisions for abortion and same-sex marriage.

Moreover, in March 2008, the Bolivian Episcopal Conference said of the draft constitution: “Its excessive concentration of power in the executive breaks the necessary balance and independence between the branches of government.” This is a concern echoed by many opposition figures in Bolivia – indeed, MAS leaders have gone so far as to suggest the country’s congress and judiciary will be redundant for the remainder of the year. The constitution will also alter the privileged status of the Catholic Church within the state, a move defended by the government’s Rural Development Minister, Carlos Romero, who said: “In all modern countries, the separation between church and state is delineated. This is what we are trying to materialize in Bolivia, where there is no adequate separation of functions.”

Stoking the fire in this battle, Morales was recently quoted by the Bolivian newspaper La Razón as saying the “only real opponents remaining for the government are the press and the Roman Catholic Church.” Catholic leader Bishop Jesus Juarez later tried to distance the Church from the anti-reform effort, but nevertheless, Morales’ recent outbursts could be just the latest in a series of government attacks on different elements of the opposition. Individual opposition figures have been targeted by a campaign of rhetoric and arrests. Interior minister Alfredo Rada, for example, has been seeking retribution for crimes committed during September’s violence, threatening to charge right-wing businessman and opposition activist Branko Marinkovic with “terrorism” and detaining various civic leaders under legally questionable circumstances.

Neither is Morales’ offensive campaign restricted to domestic targets. The Bolivian government’s relationship with the United States has continued to sour over recent months, with a November 28th press release accusing the CIA of involvement in “the frustrated coup against [Morales’] government … in the months of August and September.” Earlier, on September 11th, Morales expelled the US ambassador Philip Goldberg from Bolivia, claiming that he had been “conspiring against democracy,” and on December 15th Prensa Latina reported that the US had decertified Bolivia, denying it the trade preferences it had enjoyed under ATPDEA (the Law of Andean Trade Preference and Drug Enforcement Act), for its alleged non-cooperation in the war on drugs.

A new harmony in Bolivia?
Bolivian politics has witnessed over the past few months – indeed, for the entirety of Morales’ presidency – an oscillation between violence and compromise, intransigence and progress towards the referendum. The capacity of Morales’ new constitution to engender any change in this respect is certainly questionable. Indeed, in some respects the successful approval of Morales’ draft constitution by Congress raises more questions than it answers about Bolivia’s future.

Despite his achievements in the past few months, Morales still presides over a fundamentally divided country. With this in mind, the president still faces problems of implementing the constitution’s provisions – particularly those relating to land reform and increased autonomy. While as a result of Morales’ compromises his proposed land reform will not be applied retroactively, it will inevitably provoke tension among ardent millionaire opposition supporters in the east of Bolivia. Given that this region is also home to Bolivia’s major natural gas reserves, any attempt to limit new landholdings there will most likely produce painful political and economic consequences. It also remains to be seen precisely how the government will choose to define ‘unproductive’ land fit for redistribution.

Autonomy is another thorny issue. The wealthier opposition provinces are in favour of it – as demonstrated by their own independent referendums on the issue in May 2008 and their agreement to the concept in a July 2006 referendum. However, the new constitution will not entirely satisfy the right wing in this respect. Indeed, the opposition’s attempts at achieving self-government would have seen provincial authorities, rather than the state, take control of Bolivia’s natural resources – a move directly at odds with Morales’ and the armed forces’ unitary vision for the country.

Taking into account other regional cases like that of Chávez in Venezuela – who has suffered politically as a result of dealing in an uncompromising fashion with his opponents – Morales might be wise to continue a policy of real negotiation through these transitional times, and not view compromise merely as a necessary evil to get his constitution passed. It is hard to imagine that the opposition will accept the reality of his reforms without some form of resistance, and the president has seen enough discord during his presidency to know that the Santa Cruz-based opposition is unafraid of resisting his reforms in violent fashion and that this may be a dangerous way to go.

Strife Likely to Prevail
It currently seems doubtful that Morales has the appetite or patience for more compromise. His recent attitude towards Bolivia’s opposition members, media and church, as well as to U.S. authorities suggests as much. Moreover, some of the opposition may well be reluctant to compromise any further themselves. Indeed, analysts at the Cochabamba-based Democracy Center have suggested that Bolivia’s opposition may choose to combine forces in preparation for December’s likely presidential election, holding a primary to select a single, unifying candidate to represent the entire Bolivian right, in an offensively-minded strategy to thwart Morales. A continuation in Morales’ recent offensive campaign is, from this perspective, likely to push the opposition further in this direction. Although the prospect remains unlikely, if nothing else it will spur them away from further compromise, particularly since the opposition is not renowned for being entirely directed towards rational solutions.

Despite recent scandals – particularly claims that Morales’ Minister of the Presidency, Juan Ramón Quintana, supplied peasants with arms and paid them to confront the opposition in the lead up to September’s massacre in Pando – a comfortable referendum triumph for Morales would undoubtedly place him in an impregnable position in electoral terms. Indeed, he most likely would find himself in much better stead than fellow regional leaders like erstwhile mentor Chávez. The question is what Morales will do in his newly reinforced position, particularly whether he will remain true to his policies and not bargain them away by appearing to be either too hard or soft. Perhaps equally as importantly, how will his opposition react? The signs at the moment suggest that one should make no mistake: a new constitution does not necessarily mean that a new harmony is developing in Bolivia.
This analysis was prepared by COHA Research Associate Guy Hursthouse