Moving On: Bolivia Ratifies New Constitutional Draft
Written by Erin Hatheway
As predicted, Bolivian voters ratified the new constitutional draft in the national referendum held on January 25, 2009. Exit polls project that the winning margin will be approximately 62 percent. (1) This referendum also set the limit for private land holdings at 5,000 hectares, winning over the other option of 10,000 hectares by an unconfirmed margin of 79 percent. (2) The National Electoral Court continues to tabulate official votes, and final results should be available within several days. [Please refer to the Electoral Court website (in Spanish) for frequently updated official tabulations at http://www.cne.org.bo/.] Although this approval represents a significant achievement for the MAS government, it also marks the beginning of a necessarily long legislative process, perhaps involving more than 100 laws to enact the constitutional reforms.
There were no significant incidents of violence or protest reported on Election Day. Regional voting percentages also followed familiar patterns, with lower approval levels in the lowland departments. Generally, rural results are slower to register, which suggest that “Yes” votes could be higher.
Most Bolivians Choose Lower Land Limit
Somewhat unexpectedly, however, an overwhelming majority of voters chose the smaller private landholding limit. The two options, left undecided by the political impasse of the 2007 Constitutional Assembly, were 5,000 hectares (19.5 square miles) or 10,000 hectares (39 square miles). This stipulation will not apply retroactively, but will only be enforced for future land purchases and property formations. The wide margin by which voters approved the limit represents an important mandate for the MAS government to continue with agrarian reform measures.
Response from Both Sides
Lowland opposition leaders had mixed reactions to the approved referendum. Volatile Santa Cruz prefect, Ruben Costas, spoke to a crowd gathered in the city’s main plaza to celebrate the “No” victory in their region on Sunday night. According to the Santa Cruz newspaper, El Deber, Costas demanded that the government recognize the constitution did not win the majority of votes, or they would be met with “unyielding resistance.” (3) Also ignoring the dynamics of the democratic process in a national vote, Santa Cruz autonomy leader, Carlos Dabdoub stated: “No constitution can be implemented if it has not been approved in all of the departments.” (4)
However, the leader of the Santa Cruz Civic Committee, Branko Marinkovic, and Tarija prefect Mario Cossio reportedly asked for negotiations with the MAS government to “build a new Bolivia.” (5)
President Evo Morales praised the referendum outcome in a speech in La Paz Sunday night. “I would like to take advantage of this opportunity to express my great recognition of all our Bolivian sisters and brothers, all of our compatriots, all of the citizens who, by their vote, through their democratic participation, have decided to recreate Bolivia.” (6) Morales also agreed to dialogue and negotiations with opposition, using the new constitution as a starting point.
Important International Support
Raul Lago, the Organization of American States (OEA) delegate in charge of their electoral observers, praised the absence of violence in the January 25 referendum. (7) The delegation stated that it “understands that this election expresses the decision of the Bolivian society to continue advancing to the establishment of the democratic process in Bolivia.” (8)
It is also important to highlight the positive response of U.S. Secretary of State Acting Spokesman, Robert Wood, in his daily press briefing on January 26: “We congratulate the Bolivian people on the referendum, and I don’t think the results are final at this point, but we look forward to working with the Bolivian government in ways we can to further democracy and prosperity in the hemisphere.” (9) When further questioned whether the referendum promoted democracy, Wood responded: “Well, a free, fair democratic process certainly does contribute positively, but what I said was I wanted to wait until we can see the final results. But we certainly do congratulate the Bolivian people on that referendum.” (10) This represents a crucial change under the new Obama administration, after the punitive discourse adopted by Bush officials following the expulsion of Ambassador Goldberg and their lack of public recognition of the legitimacy of the August 2008 recall vote.