Tuesday, July 29, 2008

The Looming Political Gamble

(digitalwarriormedia) July 29 - In less than two weeks, a nation-wide recall referendum will determine another turning point in Bolivia’s transformation to a socialist democracy under the leadership of its first indigenous president, Evo Morales.

On August 10, President Morales, Vice President Alvaro Garcia Linera and eight regional prefects (governors) will face a “Yes” or “No” vote at the ballot box.

The referendum vote will allow the Bolivian people to decide which of their political leaders deserve to remain in their respective positions.

The vote is the end result of an ongoing tug-of-war between the power structures of the central government in La Paz and the regional governments in the eastern part of the country.

Since his election in December 2005 on a platform of land reform, nationalization of Bolivia’s gas and oil industries and the rewriting of the nation’s constitution, Morales has faced an ever-intensifying opposition from political and civic leaders in the wealthier regions of Bolivia.

Commonly referred to as the Media Luna, or Half Moon, the four departments of Beni, Pando, Tarija and Santa Cruz are the richest bloc within the nation; possessing agricultural land as well as gas and oil reserves.

Morales and his supporters charge that the opposition is made up of a racist, neoliberal oligarchy who are fighting against a redistribution of Bolivia’s wealth and political power that will finally include the nation's historically marginalized indigenous majority.

Joined by a fifth governor, Manfred Reyes Villa, from the department of Cochabamba, and most recently, Savina Cuéllar, the newly elected governor of Chuquisaca, these regional governments are leading a strong resistance against the Morales administration.

Santa Cruz, the nation's wealthiest region and an opposition strong-hold, held the first inter-departmental autonomy referendum vote on May 4. Beni, Pando, Tarija and Chuquisaca followed suit as each department tries to wrestle greater independence from the central government in La Paz.

Unsanctioned by the Bolivian legislature and the nation's highest electoral court, the autonomy referendums are considered illegal and unconstitutional. Each department claimed overwhelming support for autonomy even as the government noted high rates of abstention.

Last December at the height of tensions over the drafting of a new Bolivian constitution when opposition governors announced their future plans to hold autonomy votes, Morales held out the recall referendum as a way to move past the political stalemate.

The idea gained little traction and was lost in the political chess game between La Paz and the regional leadership, but it was revisited as dialogue between both sides broke down completely in the lead up to the autonomy votes.

The recall bill was passed by the opposition-controlled Congress on May 8 with Morales signing it into law on May 12.

According to the Revocation Law, in order to be recalled, the president, vice president and governors must receive both a higher percentage and higher number of “No” votes than what they received to win their position in the 2005 election.

The voting structure puts Morales at an advantage since he won the Presidency with 53.4% of the vote. As such, in order for Morales to be recalled, 54% of the Bolivian electorate AND 1.54 million voters must say “No” to remove Evo from office.

The prefects, however, do not enjoy such a margin, with most being elected to office with somewhere between 38 -49% of the vote.

Realizing their potential disadvantage after the opposition-led Senate pushed the law through Congress, the five opposition prefects from Beni, Pando, Tarija, Santa Cruz and Cochabamba determined they did not want to sit for the recall referendum and in June they threatened a boycott of the vote.

The Morales administration condemned the governors as "cowards" and said they must abide by the law.

Earlier this month, the Media Luna governors pulled a turnabout announcing that they would stand for the August vote, but Cochabamba’s Manfred Reyes Villa insists that he will not abide by a recall referendum. On July 18 the opposition issued three demands and threatened to go on a hunger strike on August 4 if their demands are not addressed.

They want the voting structure of the Revocation Law to be changed, a redirection of regional tax income from the central government back to the individual departments and a referendum vote to determine Bolivia's capital city.

The only regional leader who will not face the recall vote is Savina Cuéllar, who was elected as Chuquisaca’s governor on June 29. She replaced former governor and MAS party member David Sanchez who resigned from his position in the wake of violent clashes within the city of Sucre that left 3 dead and hundreds wounded last November.

Her election has been a symbolic and strategic blow to the MAS Party. A former MAS member and representative to the Constituent Assembly, Cuéllar is an indigenous Quechua woman who switched parties and defeated MAS candidate Wálter Valda, gaining 55.5% to Valda’s 40.5% of the electorate.

Cuéllar's alignment with the opposition, including her support of autonomy, has further demonstrated the political complexity and polarization that exists within the country.

If any of the eight governors are recalled, they will lose their position immediately and an interim governor will be appointed until the next elections. If Morales and vice president Garcia Linera lose, they are required to hold new elections within 90-120 days. The law does not bar them from running for office again and both are considered to be strong candidates for re-election.

Although the outcome of the August vote is uncertain, according to a recent poll by Captura Consulting SRL and published in La Prensa, only 18 per cent of respondents would vote to oust Morales, 49% would vote for him to remain in office and 33% were undecided.

More uncertain is how the vote will affect the political environment within the nation. Morales and his supporters could gain a boost or the prefects - who have thus far demonstrated a willingness to charter their own course - could cause an even further rift between the regional departments and the central government.

At the behest of central government, international observers will descend upon Bolivia to guarantee the transparency of the recall vote. And the world will be watching the latest exercise in Bolivian democracy.



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