Bolivia’s four main political parties reached an agreement on October 20 to hold a national referendum on a proposed new constitution that would "refound" the Andean nation. If the accord holds, Bolivia will vote on the draft constitution on January 25, 2009, or 13 months after the country’s Constituent Assembly first presented the document to congress.
Social movements marched from El Alto into La Paz on the city's main avenue in support of the constitution. (By Teresa Carrasco)
President Evo Morales promised to sign the proposal into law after it goes through Congress. Speaking to a multitude of supporters, Morales asked for "respect" and "patience" while Congress reviews the proposal and votes on the referendum call. Morales promised the cheering crowds he would wait all night for Congress, if needed: "I'll sign it right now, at any time, even at three, four, or six in the morning, but this will get signed into law."
The energy was palpable in La Paz on October 20 as tens of thousands of indigenous, campesinos, and workers from all corners of Bolivia streamed into the Andean nation's capital to demand that the draft constitution go to referendum. President Morales personally headed one of the biggest contingents of the march down from El Alto, the massive indigenous satellite city perched above La Paz at 12,000 feet above sea level.
Attempts by President Morales’ Movement towards Socialism (MAS) party to set a date for a vote on the constitution had been frustrated by the opposition-controlled Senate and resistance by prefects (governors) from the country’s wealthier lowlands. Conservative sectors were particularly opposed to articles in the new Magna Carta that seek to legally limit the size of landholdings, enshrine popular “social control” over government bodies, and grant unprecedented rights to Bolivia’s indigenous people.
Supporters of the new constitution wait in front of congress. (By Teresa Carrasco)
Popular organizations from the National Coordinator for Change, the pro-government umbrella group that organized the march, have set up camp in the plaza in front of Congress. The groups have promised to keep vigil until legislators pass a law authorizing the constitutional referendum vote to go forward.
According to ABI, the government news service, the compromise that led to an agreement in Congress involves the modification of several articles of the draft Constitution. Under pessure from the opposition, MAS legislators agreed to withdraw their proposal for two consecutive presidential and vice-presidential terms in office. Bolivia's current constitution bars a president from standing for office immediately after having served out a term.
However, part of the agreement stipulates that if the new constitution is approved by the referendum, special general elections will be held in December 2009 at which time President Morales and his vice-president, along with all other elected officials in the country, will be able to stand for a new five-year term.
Luis Vásquez, a Senator from the main opposition party of Podemos, claimed that maintaining the current rules on term limits was a major victory for his party: "We've resolved and overcome essential issues. Once again Podemos has substantially contributed to the pacification of the country, avoiding conflicts, and contributing to the modifications of a project that appeared to be totalitarian."
Close observers of the negotiations say more than 100 other changes have been made to articles in the draft constitution, particularly on contentious issues such as land tenure and the new system of regional "autonomy."
Alex van Schaick is a NACLA Research Associate currently in La Paz, Bolivia.