Bolivia: Implications of Referendum for Democracy and the MAS

By Santiago Anria*

Evo Referendum

Photo Credit: zak / Flickr / Creative Commons

A Bolivian referendum on February 21 – one month after the 10th anniversary of President Morales’s rise to power – threatens a break with the country’s tradition and the democratic principle of power alternation.  A “Yes” vote on the constitutional amendment up for approval would allow Morales and Vice President García Linera to run in 2019 for a fourth consecutive term – a scenario that the fragmented opposition claims would mean not only greater concentration of power in a personalistic leader but also a shift toward authoritarianism, similar to that in Venezuela.  The government claims that a “No” vote would mean the end of an era of unprecedented economic and democratic stability, the end of measures that have empowered subordinate groups in society, and the return of the right and neoliberalism.  Opinion polls so far show the vote will be close.

Morales’s efforts to extend his time in office are consistent with his tendencies to dominate politics and the policy process.  Yet my research shows that increased political incorporation during his government has also given previously marginalized groups enhanced influence over agenda-setting and policy-making and led to important shifts in domestic power relations.  In today’s Bolivia, well-organized interest groups typically belonging to the “informal” labor sector (such as coca growers, cooperative miners, and transportation unions) have greater influence over policy from within the state (in representative institutions and state bureaucracies at all levels) and from without (direct pressure in the streets).  This has resulted in greater regime responsiveness to the groups’ interests and in policies that expand economic and social benefits, as well as improvements in poverty and inequality reduction – even without meeting some of their fundamental needs such as employment and health care reform.  While in some instances newly empowered groups have mobilized and served as a check on state power, their role is founded on a highly particularistic relationship of the MAS and allied groups and, as such, can actually be an obstacle for governing in the interest of broader segments of society.

An intense government campaign in favor of the constitutional amendment is already under way and will likely deepen in the coming weeks.  The Morales government lacks the kind of epic framing it had when it first won the presidential election in 2005.  Citizens today express concerns similar to those voiced during previous governments – concentration of power, widespread corruption, inefficient institutions, weak protection of liberal rights, politicization of courts, and hostility to opponents and the press.  A “Yes” victory on February 21 would not automatically mean a shift to an authoritarian regime as core features of authoritarianism (i.e., power exercised by a small group overriding the will of the citizens) are not currently evident.  In addition, Morales’s tendencies to dominate often meet strong checks from a relatively autonomous civil society.  Comparative evidence suggests, however, that a fourth Morales term might lead to further power concentration and decreased political input from below — which could mean a weakening of the MAS as an organizational actor for the empowerment of subordinate groups independent of its undisputed leader.  A “No” victory, on the other hand, would not necessarily mean the end of the social and political transformations carried out by the MAS.  If nothing else, Bolivia’s “process of change” over the past decade has given rise to a “new normal” of more inclusive institutions and basic social programs that benefit large sectors of the population and will be difficult for any future government to reverse.

January 19, 2016

* Santiago Anria is a postdoctoral fellow at Tulane University’s Center for Inter-American Policy and Research.

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