Juan Karita/AP
Bolivia's President Evo Morales

New Constitution Promised by Bolivian President Comes to a Vote

January 21, 2009 12:01 PM
by Christopher Coats
After years of government infighting and an attempted recall, Bolivian President Evo Morales has brought a sweeping new constitution to a vote that promises a “reformed” country, increased indigenous representation and almost certain protest.

A Fierce Point of Contention Comes to a Vote

A key campaign promise when Evo Morales was elected, the new constitution has been a lightning rod for criticism and debate, as opposition leaders have attacked several key points promising increased state control of the economy and a greater indigenous presence in the government.

Drafted by a broad council of representatives over the last two years, the constitution faced a series of obstacles and missteps, including a push to require a two-thirds vote on every clause and an appeal by the former capital of Sucre to regain its official status.

Most notably, Morales and his Movimiento al Socialismo, of MAS Party faced the greatest hurdle when opposition leaders forced a recall vote in the summer of 2008.

However, the effort to unseat Morales and halt the march toward a new government was averted when the vote shifted dramatically in the president’s favor, earning him over 60 percent of the national vote and the momentum to finally bring the constitution to a referendum, scheduled for Jan. 25.

Anchored by representatives and governors of the nation’s prosperous eastern provinces, Morales’ opposition has taken issue with several key points of the proposed constitution.

Former president Carlos Mesa took a special interest in the proposed racial quotas that will dictate the number of different ethnic groups that will be represented in government positions.

“I will vote ‘no’ for the constitution on Jan. 25,” Mesa told Bloomberg. “The construction of a plural democracy is based in the free and equal election of citizens; this mechanism will generate chaos and inequality.”

The New Constitution

According to Open Democracy, the new constitution outlines Morales’ vision of a new Bolivia, which will bring all natural resources under state control and promote regional autonomy as a means of keeping the national government in check.

However, the most contentious aspects of the proposed document address the role of indigenous peoples in Bolivia. Representing the grand majority of the country’s population, indigenous Bolivians have long felt underrepresented in government and industry.

Morales, who is of Aymara descent, marked the first time in the country’s 180-year history that an indigenous Bolivian had reached the nation’s highest office.

Bolstered by indigenous support, centralized mainly in the country’s western provinces, Morales proposed sweeping changes, promising to provide equal opportunity to all of the country’s citizens.

In addition to the racial quotas for government jobs, Morales’ constitution promises a restructured judicial system that would put indigenous courts on equal footing with traditional ones, an official declaration of Bolivia as an ethnically plurinational country, and a mixed economy that would put restrictions on large land owners and likely favor smaller farms.

Critics have also taken issue with the electoral components of the constitution that, if approved, would restructure the nation’s term limits.

Under new laws, immediate re-election bans would be reversed and as they would not be applied to those years Morales has already served as president, he would be allowed to run again, potentially holding office for the next 10 years.

Finally, the constitution will shift the national capital to the town of Sucre, which held that position until 1899.

Historical Context: A regional shift

Coming to power in 2006 after the administration of Carlos Mesa, Morales is part of a regional shift in South America toward more state control of natural resources and community-based governance, each anchored by charismatic leaders.

Although Morales’ popularity has only increased behind promises of sweeping change and social programs, his future success may be hindered by decreasing global oil prices. Morales has received financial support for his agenda from political ally and Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, who has encountered his own set of obstacles as oil prices have plummeted.

Morales’ close working relationship with Chavez, who has long been an adversary of the Bush administration, has also caused a rift to develop with the United States. After civil violence erupted in September of last year, Bolivia expelled the U.S. ambassador, causing him to advocate halting almost $20 million in annual aid.

The move not only further soured the relationship between the two countries but also pushed Bolivia further into the arms of Russia, who have recently made inroads into the region, expanding military and diplomatic efforts in Cuba and Venezuela, including the clearance of over $5 billion in arms sales to the Chavez government.

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