Referendum in Bolivia
August 8, 2008, 9:27 pm
Filed under: Latin America, Politics | Tags: , ,

On Sunday, Bolivians head to the polls as the countries political impasse has reached a climatic level. Voters will decide in a national referendum whether or not President Evo Morales and 8 regional governors will stay in power. The impoverished yet resource rich Andean nation has been in a virtual stalemate since Morales, an indigenous cocalero leader won the 2005 elections in a landslide, the largest margin in the countries history.

Even with such a strong mandate, Morales’ Movement Towards Socialism (MAS) party, which was propelled to national prominence due to indigenous mobilization against neoliberal economic policies under conservative administrations, has been blocked from implementing serious reform. Central to MAS reforms is land distribution, a contentious issue for the economic elite who control most of the territory in the eastern part of the country.

The countries indigenous majority, comprised of Quechua, Aymara and smaller Guaraní populations, have created a dramatically new dynamic in Bolivian politics. Shut out before the democratic era and co-opted under both democratic and bureaucratic authoritarian military regime in the post-war era, they now will play a prominent role in Bolivia’s democratic system. In a system where candidates rarely get the popular vote (Morales being the lone exception), the indigenous movements are a powerful force who command the respect of parties on the left and right.

The rise of indigenous movements has come to the detriment of the countries historical elite, comprised mainly of noticeably lighter-skinned descendants of the Spanish. Almost as soon as Morales took power, the nation’s powerful economic interests aimed to curtail the new administration’s ability to redistribute land and wealth. At the forefront has been Santa Cruz State, the largest state (where most of proposed land reform would take place) and the economic powerhouse (home to large agribusiness and gas interests) of the nation.

Santa Cruz has been seeking regional autonomy from La Paz, an autonomy that would allow the state to create its own political system, police force and tax system, without any say from the central government in La Paz. Three other states, Beni, Trinidad and Tarija haved joined in the movement to secure regional autonomy, which aims to radically change Bolivian politics.

Earlier this year, states seeking autonomy called their own referendum, and while these initiatives passed overwhelmingly, neither Morales nor the international community recognized the results. In order to bring some modicum of stability, Morales has put his own term on the line and voters on Sunday will decide if they want Bolivia to change course, away from MAS’ leftist oriented policies.

Earlier in the week, protesters prevented a summit meeting between Morales, Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez and Argentina’s Cristina Fernandez. Though officially a business deal, the leaders were also showing support for Morales before the crucial election. The three had planned to meet in Bolivia to discuss a proposed gas contracts between the states but protesters in Tarija stormed the runway and out of security concerns, the meeting was canceled.

If Morales wins the referendum and stays in power, a very likely scenario given the indigenous majority, it seems unlikely that the autonomy movement will cooperate with La Paz. Nevertheless, a strong showing for Morales and his MAS governors, and any lose for the media luna will surely strengthen Morales international image and perhaps his ability to bring this impasse to an end.


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