The Myth of Eroding Democracy in Bolivia

(International Relations and Security Network, 14/07/2006)


Though critics of Bolivian President Evo Morales talk of the country's eroded democracy and liken him to Chavez and Castro, Bolivian democracy is in fact alive and well.


Bolivia’s Constituent Assembly has been billed as the event that will change Bolivian history. It will dictate the country’s future, enshrined in the most venerable document of democracy. Many expect Bolivians to stand by their leader, President Evo Morales, and his political party, the Movement Towards Socialism (MAS), as the political machine literally advances in the direction of a socialist state. It is a future that plays into the hands of leaders such as Venezuela's Hugo Chavez, and one that derides any activity to promote democracy, security and the rule of law in South America. Such conclusions are well in line with what Morales’ critics want everyone to believe, but they could not be further from the truth.


On 2 July, Bolivians voted on two items, regional autonomy and the representatives to the Constituent Assembly. The result of the autonomy vote was not surprising. Bolivians still want to stick together. What many have ignored is that the MAS did not win the two-thirds majority necessary to literally rewrite the constitution as it sees fit and force-feed the rest of the country with socialist ideology put to practice.


As reported by the Bolivian National Electoral Court, the MAS won a total of 139 seats out of a possible 255. Together with its coalition members elected to represent Bolivians at the Assembly from ally political parties, the MAS will have as many as 151 representatives. This outcome is 19 votes short of a two-thirds majority.


These 19 votes are what stand between unilateral decision-making and a long negotiation process. It will be a process dictated by a MAS-led agenda, true. But it will be watered down by the opposition, led by Jorge Quiroga and his PODEMOS party, which captured 50 seats. Quiroga came in second place in last year’s elections, and his party promises to present a counter point to nearly every agenda item raised by the MAS.


Morales wants to distribute land, but Quiroga wants to protect the rights of private land owners. Morales would like to spend more money on social programs, rewriting the constitution to reflect these tendencies. But Quiroga will want to protect the Bolivian economy, arguing that money should be spent wisely. Morales wants to nationalize Bolivia’s energy assets. Quiroga wants to maintain an attractive environment for foreign investment.


Morales will likely use the assembly to promote his socialist agenda, but he knows that Quiroga will fight hard for every one of those 19 votes that Morales failed to win. And that is the good news. The results of the constituent assembly vote prove that democracy is alive and well in Bolivia.


Negotiation is Morales’ reality and will be for the rest of his administration. On 6 August, the Constituent Assembly will convene, a remarkable achievement in itself, and another promise that Morales will have fulfilled for his constituency. For six months, representatives to the assembly will negotiate, compromise, caucus, make deals and eventually agree on the wording of Bolivia’s new constitution - a document representative of all Bolivians, not only the aristocracy. Bolivia’s new constitution will be a document wrought from compromise, essentially the raw essence of democracy.


When US President George W Bush claimed he was worried about the “erosion of democracy” in both Bolivia and Venezuela on 22 May during a speech to the National Restaurant Association in Chicago, major media outlets seized on the chance to chastise Morales for the nationalization of his country’s energy assets. In late May, democracy in Bolivia, it seemed, was circling the drain and on its way out.


At the time, Morales was often seen side-by-side with Chavez, the keeper of the socialist torch, passed on to him from Cuban dictator Fidel Castro. It is true that Morales keeps close contact with both men. But Morales is focused on governing his own country. He speaks to Bolivians first, and, unlike Chavez, does not spend much time worrying about the greater socialist agenda in the Americas.


Morales’ most anti-democratic move to date, the nationalization of his country’s energy assets, was done with a style and force that was intended for a domestic audience, not an international news wire. This is a clean-cut difference between Morales and Chavez that many in the media, and Washington, either do not see or choose to ignore.


Much negotiation is required to reach consensus for a mutually beneficial outcome of the nationalization of Bolivia’s energy assets. The same is true for the Constituent Assembly. Morales is in no position to dictate unilateral decisions to his two largest customers of natural gas, Argentina and Brazil. He is in no position to dictate terms to Quiroga and PODEMOS. Negotiations surrounding Bolivian natural gas have moved forward thus far, with little stall time. It is an indication of the seriousness Morales’ camp brings to the table. No less can be expected of his party’s performance at the upcoming Constituent Assembly.


Tom Shannon, the Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs, and the next US ambassador to Bolivia, Philip Goldberg, consider that Bolivia, under MAS leadership, will certainly change. There is not doubt that the country has tacked left and will no longer be cowed by the US. It does not mean, however, that democracy has eroded there. The opposite is true. Democracy in Bolivia has never been stronger. Morales is not a dictator. He is a president determined to meet the needs of a broad-based constituency. It is a fact that Morales’ critics in the media and Washington continue to ignore, but one that Bolivians have finally begun to enjoy not as fantasy but as reality.