COHA Report: What is Happening with Morales and his Vision for Bolivia?

Today, April 30, 2007 the Bolivian National Constituent Assembly is scheduled to reconvene to hear proposals by several commissions established to draft recommendations for specific provisions of the new constitution. The workings of the Assembly will be under careful scrutiny by the country’s opposition parties, which are eager to detect the slightest loophole in the rewriting of the constitution, as well as by international investors who will be awaiting firm indications of Bolivia’s political stability before they decide if they will invest in the historically tumultuous nation. As President Evo Morales continues to push forward his leftist agenda in the country, the eventual outcome of these sessions, as well as the months of debate that will follow, will have a dramatic impact on Morales’ presidency and his ability to carry out his vision for Bolivia.

Through various proposals that Morales has submitted to the Assembly, plus numerous efforts to ensure his movement’s (Movimiento al Socialismo-MAS) plenary influence on its proceedings, it has become increasingly evident, at least to his rightwing opposition, that Morales is attempting a bureaucratic revolution in Bolivia whereby he will become the presidente vitalicio (president for life).

On August 6, 2006 the Bolivia’s Constituent Assembly was sworn in, marking the beginning of the year long process intended to rewrite the constitution. “We are not talking about a simple constitutional reform, we are talking about refounding Bolivia,” Morales said, in perhaps prophetic words of his ultimate intentions.

During the Assembly’s first six months in session, it accomplished relatively little as the proceedings were blocked by a debate over internal voting procedures. In an eventual concession by Morales’ ruling party, MAS, an agreement was reached whereby a two-thirds vote would be required to approve all articles intended for the new constitution. MAS now holds 53 percent of the seats in the Assembly, and it can rely on the support of an additional 7 percent from aligned parties. Prior to the February 15, 2007 agreement on the voting process, the government’s total of 60 percent of the seats would have given it unchecked power to pass or block all legislation tracking its way through the Assembly. This immense control over the constitutional drafting process would have awarded Morales with the power to influence all aspects of Bolivia’s political system. Now, as a result of the opposition’s persistence and the number of seats it controls in the Assembly, MAS will have to seek votes outside of its traditional base, likely forcing it to make additional concessions to the opposition as the proceedings continue.

Four days after the voting procedure was finally agreed upon, an ambitious timetable was pushed through the Assembly outlining the various deadlines for decisions to be made. Having lost the first half of a scheduled yearlong process to internal conflict, the Assembly was faced with the daunting task of rewriting the Bolivian Constitution in six months. Now, with the just over three months to go, the likelihood that an intrinsically divided assembly will be able to reach rapid agreements seems increasingly improbable.

In recent weeks, the Assembly members have called for an extension of the August 6, 2007 deadline for the issuance of the new constitution, a move that many suspicious Bolivians have perceived as motivated by selfish politicians. Critics of the Assembly have pointed out that the Constituent Assembly members are relatively highly-paid officials and the longer it takes to draft the constitution, the more personally profitable the operation is for them. As of now, no emendations have been made to the August deadline.

On February 26, 2007 Morales voiced his intention to send over a group of handpicked advisors to oversee and provide counsel to the Constituent Assembly. Both the opposition and governing Assembly members were outraged by what they saw as an overbearing decision on his part. Less than two weeks after MAS, in effect, conceded its unilateral power in the Assembly, the opposition views the president’s move as further affirmation of its claim that he was trying to reestablish his control over the Assembly’s decisions and centralize his power. Similarly, MAS’ Assembly delegation felt that the president was pressuring them to yield by bringing in a team of close advisors to oversee the decision-making process. Both sides have admonished the president for attempting to override a democratic and constitutional process for his own self-interests.

One of the issues being debated by the Constituent Assembly is the matter of presidential re-elections-in recent months, Morales has publicly played with the idea of holding early elections in January 2008 which will mark the end of the second year of his five-year term (he was elected in December of 2005). His decision to hold early elections could be grounded in a desire to extend his presidency indefinitely. Under the current constitution, presidents are only allowed to hold office for one five-year term. If this were to change in the new constitution, and Morales was allowed to run for re-election in 2008, that would extend his presidency through 2013 and leave open the possibility for yet another five years. The president’s decision to wait out the final three years of his term and run again in 2011 will be a result of how he perceives the public’s support of his administration.
In 2005 Morales won the presidential elections with 53.7 percent of the vote.

However, according to a poll taken by Newlink Political in March 2007, only 40.7 percent of the respondents said they would vote to re-elect Morales if he were permitted to run in the next election. By accelerating the date of the next presidential balloting, Morales may be preparing to take advantage of this relative popularity, as well as leave the opposition with less than a year to wage what could be a bruising and costly counter-campaign.

Regardless of the motives behind calling for an early election, under the provisions of the current constitution, Morales does not have the political power to proceed. Samuel Doria Medina, the leader of the opposition party, Unidad Nacional, has said that there has been no discussion of holding early elections within the Constituent Assembly. Unless the Assembly calls for early elections, Morales will be acting unconstitutionally if he attempts to hold such a vote in January 2008.

In March 2007, MAS leaders expressed their desire to have the Constituent Assembly reduce the voting age in Bolivia from 18 to 16 years old. This idea was rejected outright by the opposition, who cited the inherent immaturity of sixteen-year-olds as reason enough to deny them the vote. Jorge Lazarte, a political analyst and current member of the Constituent Assembly, accused Morales and his party of “making proposals in an irresponsible manner.” In agreement with Lazarte and the opposition, 82 percent of the respondents in a March poll conducted in Bolivia by the polling agency Apoyo, Opinión y Mercado believed that the voting age should not be changed. As a popular, leftist president, much of Morales’ support comes from younger voters. It is likely that Morales and MAS wish to reduce the voting age to increase Morales’ chances for reelection.

Over the past sixteen months of his presidency, Morales’ desire to centralize his power has been made evident. As the political climate in Bolivia continues to polarize and major deadlines approach, the level of the president’s involvement in these matters will directly affect their outcome. Bolivia is at an interesting crossroads in its modern history, as elected officials attempt to redefine the political landscape by means of a new constitution. Transparency, honesty, and respect for a vital democratic process at a grass-roots level—virtues long sought-after by Bolivia’s political culture—have been repeatedly bulldozed by previous administrations. If Morales wishes to fulfill his campaign promise to combat corruption and authoritarian proclivities endemic to Bolivian politics, he should begin by investigating his own administration and by ensuring the authenticity of any new constitution which results.