Despite winning more than 67 percent of the vote in a recall referendum on August 10, Bolivian president Evo Morales faces serious political challenges to his rule and to his efforts to lead a “democratic and cultural revolution.” Amid extreme antagonism between the national government and regional power brokers from the lowland departments, the referendum was a seen as a critical test of popular support for each opposing side. But the outcome strengthened both the government and the opposition prefects, preventing a decisive victory for either side and revealing a high level of political polarization.
Morales was elected in 2005 with nearly 54 percent of the vote. (By Joel Alvarez, CC 3.0)
The referendum asked Bolivians to vote yes or no on the continuance not only of their president, but also that of eight of the country’s nine prefects (similar to elected governors). Nationwide, 67.41 percent of voters voted yes for Morales, an increase of almost 14 percentage points over his already impressive electoral victory in 2005. In almost any circumstance this would have been a decisive and remarkable win for a president more than halfway through a four-year term, and the numbers demonstrated a trend of increasing support for the president, even in parts of the country where he and his party are weakest.
The distribution of support for Morales, however, varied significantly between the eastern and western departments: he lost the popular vote in three of the four eastern lowland departments, with his weakest showing predictably in Santa Cruz where he received just 40 percent. Somewhat surprisingly in Pando, one of the four lowland departments, he won over 52%. By contrast, in the five more populous western provinces, where the government has its strongest bases of support, the percentages in favor of Morales were astounding, ranging from the low of 53% in Chuquisaca to 70% in Cochabamba, and to between 83 and 84% in La Paz, Oruro, and Potosí. Thus, the overall national trend of increased support for the president also showed stark regional variation.
The prefects from the four eastern, lowland departments—Santa Cruz, Beni, Pando and Tarija—who have been spearheading the opposition to Morales, were also ratified in their respective departments by impressive margins ranging from 56 to 66 percent. These figures represent increases of 8 to 19 points from the vote percentages they won when they were elected in 2005. Since much of their public profile and actions have been focused on confrontation with the central government it appears that the prefects’ tactics and their strategy of demanding greater political autonomy have paid off politically. Morales’ political party, the Movement Toward Socialism (MAS), had hoped that one or two opposition prefects would be voted out of office, but that result failed to materialize.
A government supporter holds a sign calling the autonomy statute "fascist." (By Marcello Casal Jr./ABr, CC 2.5)
The regional opposition has not acted as a “loyal opposition”—that is, one that plays by the rules of the game—rather, it has openly encouraged and supported acts of insubordination against Morales and his administration. Just days before the referendum, groups opposing the president illegally occupied a regional airport and prevented the Argentine and Venezuelan presidents, as well as Morales, from landing for a political summit and the inauguration of a joint investment project that would have benefitted the department as well as regional integration, declaring that Morales and those allied with him were not welcome in Tarija.
Morales’s presidency is viewed by many of his supporters as an opportunity to decolonize the country and redistribute wealth. Bolivia’s majority indigenous population has historically been marginalized from the spheres of power and relegated to extreme levels of poverty in one of the most unequal countries in the region. But plans for agrarian reform, attempts to change the country’s economic model, and, not least, leadership of the government by someone from the indigenous-based social movements are all viewed as threatening to many of Bolivia’s privileged.
Lacking an alternative national political project to that of the MAS, the prefects have used the wedge issue of regional autonomy and adeptly taken advantage of several political blunders committed by the MAS to assiduously fan the flames of regionalism. They have skillfully portrayed Morales and the MAS as the embodiment of the resented centralism that has historically characterized Bolivian politics and political administration.
Having lost access to political power at the national level, elites in the lowland provinces are demanding increases in departmental budgets (funding for regional governments come from the central government) and a model of regional autonomy that would increase their control of land use and natural resource extraction, as well as limit the reach of the national government. If successful, these proposals would dramatically weaken the Morales government’s ability to carry out its political agenda.
Right-wing Santa Cruz prefect Rubén Costas has been one of the government's most intransigent opponents. (By Fábio Rodrigues Pozzebom/ABr, CC 2.5)
The incompatibility of the national and regional agendas and the pattern over these last couple of years of political intransigence, outright hostility, and even the use of violence and intimidation, bodes ill for a process of national dialogue and compromise. While Morales and four of the five opposition prefects (the exception was Rubén Costas, the hard-line prefect of Santa Cruz) all acknowledged the need for dialogue immediately after the referendum, events since then indicate that confrontation is likely to continue and even intensify.
In a brief address the night of the referendum Morales expressed his determination to deepen the reforms and transformations that his government has been attempting to carry out, but he also expressed a commitment to dialogue and compromise for the sake of national unity. Extending an olive branch to the opposition, he suggested that what was needed was to find a way to merge the new draft constitution passed by the MAS-dominated Constituent Assembly with the Autonomy Statutes drawn up by the opposition forces in the lowland departments; the opposition has been adamant in their rejection of the new draft constitution.
Following up on this promise, Morales summoned the prefects to La Paz to begin the negotiation process, but after meeting for less than two days on August 13 and 14 the talks broke down with each side accusing the other of being unwilling to compromise. In the wake of these failed negotiations, both the government and the opposition have staked out even more strident positions that put the prospect of dialogue and consensus even further out of reach.
On August 23, the MAS and its supporters decided in a national meeting that the president should move forward on ratifying the new constitution by convening another national referendum, which would also place the question of funding for the prefectural administrations to the citizens, thereby indicating that Morales’ previous suggestion of trying to merge the draft constitution and the autonomy statutes through process of national dialogue has now been discarded. In recent statements vice president Álvaro García Linera signaled the government’s view that it now has a strong mandate to move its political project forward: “There is but one single [political] project in Bolivia,” and “one way or the other, there must be a Political Constitution that guarantees and secures the advances [made by the government].”
Civic opposition groups in Santa Cruz, Tarija, and Chuquisaca responded by declaring themselves “on a war footing” (en pie de Guerra) against any attempt to approve the constitutional text and that no such referendum would take place in any of the five departments. Not only this, but in flagrant violation of the existing constitution, Rubén Costas, prefect of Santa Cruz, is moving forward with plans to organize a departmental electoral court and police force that would report to the prefectural government as opposed to the corresponding national institutions.
Attacks by young opposition "shock troops" known as the Unión Juvenil Cruceñista on government supporters have left many injured. (By Marcello Casal Jr./ABr, CC 2.5)
It was recently reported that in Santa Cruz a group of thugs associated with Costas and the “civic” opposition groups violently attacked the regional chief of police, who is hospitalized and has since resigned. Costas has since declared that no one will be reassigned to this post without his express permission. This recent incident indicates the willingness of the right to use violence and intimidation to advance their agenda and exposes the weakness of the state’s ability to enforce the law. Similar violent incidents in the past have gone unpunished.
At the present moment, the national government and regional opposition groups appear to be moving inexorably towards further confrontation as they each attempt to implement their political agendas on the ground even if that means sidestepping laws and the constitutional framework—and in the case of the right resorting to the politics of violence and intimidation. The MAS now has an even stronger popular mandate than before to move for the approval of the new constitution, which as García Linera indicated is essential to institutionalizing the changes that have already been made and advancing others.
However, even if they succeed in getting the constitution approved in a referendum, the opposition forces will still have the ability to sabotage government initiatives because of the weakness of the Bolivian state and its institutions. Morales’ political project cannot be successfully accomplished if the country is divided and the central government is weak. The referendum “victory” has not provided a solution to Bolivia’s political crisis, and the current stalemate between Evo and the regional opposition illustrates yet again how difficult social change and redistribution are to achieve. Even with a solid majority mandate and in a context of democracy, the road to revolutionary change is wrought with obstacles.
Jennifer N. Collins is Assistant Professor of Political Science at the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point and has just returned from a month and a half of research in Bolivia.