Monday, March 10, 2008

Bolivian Court Suspends Referendum Vote

One week to the day that Bolivia’s National Congress passed legislation authorizing a May 4 referendum vote on the draft constitution, a major pillar of the central government’s reform agenda was pushed back.

The nation-wide referendums on Bolivia’s new constitution are postponed indefinitely, following a ruling by the country’s highest electoral court.

Last Thursday, the National Electoral Court (CNE) announced that referendum legislation passed by the National Congress on February 28 cannot be implemented as originally planned.

After four days of meetings with heads of the country’s regional agencies in charge of monitoring elections, Jose Luis Exeni, President of the CNE, announced suspension of the constitutional referendums due to a lack of time.

Exeni delivered the CNE ruling saying it is unfeasible to ensure "legal guarantees, sufficient time and an adequate electoral environment," on such short notice for the referendum.

The CNE resolution also suspended autonomy referendums planned in four of Bolivia’s nine departments. Exeni warned that the regions which announced departmental referendums are acting illegally because those powers rest with the legislature and the National Electoral Court.

"We assume that the departmental prefects cannot convene referendum on autonomy statutes. This is the responsibility of Congress…the Departmental Electoral Courts (CDE) cannot manage referendum processes. This is the responsibility of the National Electoral Court,” stated Exeni.

Despite the latest ruling of the higher court, Departmental Electoral Courts of Santa Cruz, Cochabamba, Beni, Pando and Tarija said they will continue with preparations to declare autonomy and warned that the CNE is overstepping its power.

Opposition leaders dispute the legality of the draft constitution passed in December 2007, as well as the congressional legislation setting referendum votes for May.

No Political Compromise

The congressional vote that authorized the referendum came after two months of tense talks between President Morales and departmental prefects.

Initially both sides stated a commitment to finding compromise through dialogue. Vice President Alvaro Garcia Linera headed up an ad hoc body charged with finding consensus among the opposing sides but the it failed to make any progress.

In order to protect their collective interests, the departmental governors of Santa Cruz, Tarija, Pando and Beni, Cochabamba and Chuquisaca, formed the National Democratic Council (CONALDE).

Opposition leaders, have accused President Morales of making a power grab, claiming that the new constitution does not recognize the demands of the country's eastern provinces.

A major setback occurred when the central government moved ahead with the Dignity Income pension on February 1st. The social program, which grants a monthly stipend to elderly Bolivians over 60, is partly funded with departmental gas and oil revenues.

In response, the opposition prefects declared the dialogue suspended, pressed ahead with their own resolutions for autonomy and rejected the government’s funding structure of the Dignity Income.

With dialogue between the opposition prefects and the Morales administration at a standstill, the Legislature stepped in to move forward three referendums.

In a turbulent and hurried Congressional session on February 28, legislators met for less than an hour, but managed to pass the new legislation by a majority of more than two-thirds.

One PODEMOS (We Can) party senator from Cochabama, jumped on a table to shout that the legislature’s decisions were illegal. Other opposition members claimed that government supporters physically prevented them from entering the Congressional building.

During the meeting, hundreds of campesinos stood outside of Congress. They had demonstrated for three days in support of the referendum.

The laws permitted referendums addressing the new constitutional text and the amount of private landholdings to be held in May. The legislative body also passed a law declaring that departmental autonomy referendums can only be convened by Congress.

This action signaled a major blow to the opposition. The Santa Cruz department was to vote on their autonomy referendum on May 4, with Beni and Tarija announcing plans to conduct autonomy votes on June 1.

The Struggle Will Continue

On February 29, when President Morales signed the legislation into law, it appeared as though a long-awaited reform was finally on its way to the people.

President Morales announced that in the absence of an agreement between the country’s different political factions on the new draft Constitution, the most democratic action was to let the people decide the future direction of Bolivia.

But the opposition will not be deterred. While meeting with the CNE last week, to define the electoral timetable of the constitutional referendums approved by Congress, the opposition continued to press the legality of the laws.

This oppositional pressure caused the three-person CNE to determine that the country needs more time to prepare for the referendums. Despite its ruling on the departmental autonomies, the CNE is still seeking to conduct consultations with the government and the opposition in hopes of still reaching a compromise.

However the opposition is a formidable collective, whose members, Vice President Garcia Linera described as, "a very hard group.”

“No matter what you do, they do not want to change the constitution because they know that if we adopt it, they will no longer be able to privatize hydrocarbons, and not be able to distribute land as it was divided before, and that is the point of substance."



Anonymous Anonymous said...

Saludos from Bolivia.

The Court ruled this way because the government knew that the Autonomic Statues would pass and the new CPE would be defeated. More than half the country will reject the new Constitution, not so much on content, but rather how it was put together and 'passed.'

March 11, 2008 1:42 PM  

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