In Sunday’s Recall Vote, Morales’ Populist Agenda Clashes With Santa Cruz-led Eurocrats

    • Results of the August 10 referendum paradoxically creates few losers
    • Support for the president in the midst of a resilient opposition
    • A call for national unity
    • Hope for stability far from certain

On Sunday, August 10, Bolivia held a national referendum to measure the people’s confidence in President Evo Morales as well as the political viability of eight of the county’s nine prefects (departmental governors). The vote was approved of by Morales on May 12 in the midst of four unofficial and illegal autonomy referendums held in the Pando, Beni, Santa Cruz and Tarija departments, which form a regional anti-Morales bloc known as the Media Luna. Sunday’s referendum functioned as a political recall vote. A “yes” ballot would allow the leader to complete his term in office as scheduled, while a “no” would open his position for reelection. For this to occur, the incumbent would have to be rejected by a greater percentage of the electorate than initially voted him into office.

The Results
Initial results show almost no surprises. As expected, President Evo Morales and Vice-President Álvaro Garcia Linera from the Movimiento al Socialismo (MAS) party won handily, receiving an estimated 63.5 percent of the vote across the country. In fact, the vote itself represents a victory for Morales. In November 2007, it was he who first suggested that the vote occur, and by agreeing to it the opposition allowed itself to adopt a plan that reflects the president’s interests far more than its own.

Also remaining in office will be five of the eight prefects: Rubén Costas of Santa Cruz, who received 71 percent approval; Ernesto Suárez of Beni with 66.9 percent; Tarija’s Mario Cossío with 59.8 percent; Leopoldo Fernández from Pando with 58.4 percent; and 74 percent for Potosí’s Mario Virreira Iporre. Of these five prefects, only Iporre supports Morales. The other four, each of whom declared regional autonomy from the government after an overwhelmingly favorable vote occurred earlier this year, are all highly critical of the president and his populist reforms.

Three prefects were recalled by the confidence vote. Manfred Reyes of Cochabamba, one of the president’s most militant political foes, is out. Initially he rejected the legitimacy of the referendum, but has since stepped down. José Paredes from La Paz, who is a member of the opposition party PODEMOS, was also voted down. So too was Alberto Aguilar from Oruro, who is sympathetic to Morales. In each of these three departments, the president will appoint an interim prefect until new elections can be held, which should occur within the next three months.

The referendum was monitored by hundreds of domestic and international observers. Among them was an envoy from Organization of American States, which reported that 95 percent of the voting tables observed conducted the vote in a peaceful and legal manner. According to José Luis Exeni, president of the National Electoral Tribunal, at least 80 percent of Bolivia’s 4.1 million registered voters participated in the referendum.

Who’s Stands Where?
As indicated by the referendum, Morales and his reformist agenda are supported by the majority of Bolivians on a national level. A look at regional tallies tells why this is the case. Unofficial results show that the president received a majority approval rating in only four of his country’s nine departments: La Paz, Cochabamba, Oruro, and Potosí. On the surface, the fact that Morales garnered majority support in a minority of the departments indicates a significant political blow. Yet there remains hope for national unity. In all five dissenting provinces, Morales received an approval rating of at least 40 percent, reflecting an across the board increase compared to his election figures in 2005. This apparent contradiction reflects both a growing presence of resident indigenous voters in these departments, as well as the yearning by many Bolivians for political stability (Morales is the fifth president to hold office since Hugo Banzer Suárez retired in September 2001). The president may be able to use this unexpected surge in support to achieve an accord with the leaders of the dissenting departments so as to preserve national unity before it unravels altogether.

Each of the prefects from the Media Luna – all of whom oppose Morales – was vindicated by the confidence vote. In addition, the prefect of Chuquisaca, Savina Cuéllar, elected on June 29 and thus exempt from having to participate in the recall vote, has been increasingly critical of the national government. Yet she remains somewhat of a wildcard: a former MAS member, Cuéllar dropped her allegiances to the ruling party after it failed to return its administrative functions from the de facto capital city of La Paz to Sucre, the constitutional capital. This issue was originally raised as a red-herring tactic to impede the drafting of a new constitution in 2007, but has since become a major sticking point for the voters in Chuquisaca, where Sucre is located. This adds up to at least five of Bolivia’s nine provinces now being governed by prefects critical of the Morales administration. In fact, only one of the three prefects sympathetic to Morales – Mario Iporre from Potosí – managed to avoid defeat in Sunday’s vote.

Again, matters may not be as dire as they seem to appear for the president. All three departments that rejected their prefects approved of Morales overwhelmingly, so the MAS should be able to retain its support in these areas. It also should be noted that as of yet no date has been set for new elections in any of these departments.

The Implications of the Vote
The referendum marks a critical moment for Bolivia. Judging by the results, it seems as if the recall vote will not ease the divisive political tensions rivening the country but instead may exacerbate them. In one sense, Morales’ wide margin of victory should give him the leverage to pursue his populist agenda, which includes the redistribution of fallow landholdings; the nationalization of the country’s lucrative hydrocarbons sector; and the legal empowerment of Bolivia’s indigenous majority. Each of these reforms is central to the new constitution, drafted in December 2007, the ratification of which has become Morales’ Holy Grail. By law, Bolivia can have only one national referendum per annum, so the recall vote can be seen as a ploy by the opposition to slow the approval of the draft constitution, which requires its own national referendum to be implemented.

Morales’ opposition, however, was also bolstered by the vote. Rubén Costas, the prefect of the wealthy Santa Cruz department, received a greater percentage of “yes” votes than any other incumbent. His department boasts Bolivia’s most developed capitalist economy, organized around large soybean plantations. The largely Eurocentric region is also home to the country’s most developed urban center and influential business interests such as Comité Pro-Santa Cruz. For these reasons, the Santa Cruz province stands to lose more than any other if Morales’ populist reforms are enacted. Such reforms aim to redistribute the concentrated wealth in Santa Cruz and other eastern departments by means of increased federal taxation, the repossession by the state of certain private enterprises, and agrarian reform so as to empower Bolivia’s disposed indigenous majority in the western altiplano region. Thus explains why Costas has been spearheading the autonomy movement, and it seems as if this will not dramatically change in the near future. “We are going to continue fighting,” Costas declared in his victory speech. He went on to say that he plans to call an election for a provincial legislature and create an independent Santa Cruz police force.

The other prefects from the Media Luna, however, have not been so harsh in their rhetoric and have shown signs that they may yield to the government. Leopoldo Fernández, the prefect of Pando, has gone so far as to say that talks with the government are a “priority.” The opposition prefects are scheduled to meet on August 13, only hours from now, in order to determine a plan of action. Perhaps Morales’ strong win will convince the prefects that the wiser course of action would be to negotiate.

In a spirit of reconciliation, Morales has called for the national government and the opposition to “work together.” He has suggested that the draft constitution, which seems to be the linchpin of the current dilemma, be amalgamated with the autonomy statutes put forth by the Media Luna prefectures so as to reach some sort of compromise. Hope for national unity, a distant prospect leading up to the vote, has been rekindled due to an absence of electoral violence. According to authorities, only two incidents occurred on Sunday. In Yucumo, Beni, a ballot box was stolen in the early hours of the morning but was replaced by the National Electoral Court by midday. In Santa Cruz, members of a youth group sympathetic to the autonomy movement took to the streets armed with baseball bats, though no dire occurrence took place. Both events happened in neighborhoods sympathetic to the president.

Further bolstering Morales’ position of strength is the political and economic support coming from Brazil and Venezuela, two of Latin America’s most powerful nations. In addition, international and regional bodies such as the Organization of American States have steadfastly encouraged dialogue and have insisted that they would not recognize the independence of any department if it attempts to secede from the country. The U.S. has also publicly encouraged peaceful dialogue. Under the surface, however, Washington seems to favor the progressive marginalization of Bolivia’s democratically elected president. Funding from USAID last year went almost entirely to regional development projects, ostensibly signaling distaste for Morales’ nationalistic reforms.

The Bolivian military, a conservative institution whose historical focus has been to maintain national unity, has yet to be mobilized in response to separatist rhetoric from Santa Cruz and the other Media Luna provinces. Morales may use the armed forces as his ace-in-the-hole if there is any attempt by his opposition to reverse the status of the nationalized oilfields. Indeed, the president employed military forces to seize the oilfields when he nationalized them in 2006.

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