Monday, July 03, 2006

Two Sides of the Same Coin

On July 2nd Bolivians voted for a new Constituent Assembly of 255 national delegate representatives. President Evo Morales’ Movimento al Socialismo party took 134 seats – the most of any Bolivian party - but not enough to have the two-thirds majority needed to guarantee MAS-supported reforms.

MAS acquired 53% of the Constituent Assembly seats with the Podemos party taking the second highest percentage - a distant 23.5%.

The assembly will be installed in the city of Sucre on August 6 to begin deliberations that will rewrite Bolivia's constitution within the next six months to a year. The new draft constitution will then be presented to the Bolivian electorate for their approval.

Also on the ballot was a referendum to permit more autonomy to the nine regional departments of the country. Power has long been centralized in La Paz and the autonomy movement wants greater fiscal and political independence within individual regions of the country.

Four of the nine departments - Santa Cruz, Tarija, Pando and Beni - voted for the autonomy referendum. These states are all rich in the country's natural resources - possessing as much as 90 percent of the nation's natural gas reserves.

Exit polls show that voters in Santa Cruz - Bolivia's wealthiest and largest state - approved autonomy by 78 per cent.

Morales supported a "No" vote on the referendum, which according to some analysts could put him on a collision course with the powerful pro-autonomy lobby of Santa Cruz province.

The autonomy vote may exacerbate longstanding tensions between the wealthier eastern lowlands and the poorer, less fertile Andean highlands. One commentator spoke of resentment among the residents of the Santa Cruz. They resent Morales' efforts to “siphon” money from their region to empower the long-neglected indigenous majority and exert greater state control over the economy.

The autonomy question is expected to be at the top of the Constituent Assembly’s agenda along with proposals to replace Bolivia's current congress with a more representative body and elevate indigenous languages to the same legal status as Spanish.

MAS reforms also include redistributing economic and political power to grant Bolivia's majority indigenous population a greater share of the country's wealth, strengthen the traditional indigenous justice system and end years of corrupt government by a wealthy elite.

Morales recognized that four of the five provinces voted for autonomy and stressed that the Constituent should respect that result and debate the autonomy demands of small jurisdictions and indigenous peoples.

Without a two-thirds majority MAS may have to forge alliances with other political parties in order to realize its reforms at a time when the Morales administration is drawing fire from opponents that criticize his close ties to Venezuela and Cuba, nationalization of Bolivia’s hydrocarbons and the fast pace of change within the country.

There have been 18 constitutional reforms that have arisen from constituent assemblies and conventions in Bolivia. Experts estimate that the ones achieved in 1825, 1826, 1938 and 1967 stand as the most important.

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