Bolivia’s Constitutional Referendum Marks New Political Era

By Miguel Centellas*

Referendo Morales

Photo Credit: Organo Electoral Plurinacional de Bolivia and Alain Bachellier, respectively / Wikimedia and Flickr / Creative Commons

Bolivian voters’ rejection last week of a constitutional amendment to allow an incumbent president to run for a third consecutive term is a setback for President Evo Morales but a step forward for the country.  Both the government and opposition understood the national referendum as a plebiscite on Morales, who is now the longest serving head of state in Bolivian history.  Had the referendum passed, Morales would have been able to run for a fourth five-year term in 2019.  (Because Morales was first elected in 2005, before the new constitution was approved in 2009, the high court decided that he was eligible to run for reelection in 2014.)  During the months leading up to the referendum vote, polls showed a narrow gap between the votes in favor of the amendment and the No votes, with a large number of undecided.

As the final count began to crystalize (the official count is not yet available), it became clear that No won by a slim margin (51.3% to 48.7%).  At first, Morales and members of his government disputed the results, arguing that late-arriving rural ballots would vindicate him.  Later, they claimed opposition fraud and manipulation, including a “dirty” war waged by the opponents and the media.  Several scandals, however, appear to have been the real cause of Morales’s loss.

  • New developments in lingering accusations of fraud committed at the Fondo Indígena, an organization established to support economic, social, and political development of marginalized peoples. Government auditors last year uncovered more than a hundred incomplete or non-existent projects valued at tens of millions of dollars.  The case involved several ex-ministers in Morales’s government and leaders of his MAS party.
  • New allegations of corruption involving Gabriela Zapata Montaño, a romantic liaison of the President in 2006 who is now an executive for a Chinese-owned company (CAMC) that was awarded a large number of no-bid contracts for government development projects. Some sources claim millions of dollars have been misappropriated.  Zapata was arrested shortly after the vote.
  • Accusations that the MAS (and, implicitly, Morales) instigated angry protesters to attack the municipal building in El Alto, Bolivia’s second largest city, killing seven people and injuring many others. The mayor, Soledad Chapetón, and La Paz provincial governor Felix Patzi, a former education minister under Morales, were the first two opposition candidates to win those positions since MAS came to power.  The government dismissed the allegations and suggested that Chapetón orchestrated the violence to make herself a martyr.

The results of the referendum – and, more importantly, the frenzied reactions from Morales and other high-ranking members of his government – make the immediate future appear uncertain.  Morales accepted the results of the referendum but also ominously pointed out that there are other ways to amend the constitution.  He also dared opponents to initiate a recall referendum to remove him.  Nevertheless, some members of MAS – showing eagerness to carry the party’s wide support among Bolivians into the future – have begun publicly discussing possible successors.  Another positive sign is that Bolivia’s electoral court showed itself to be truly autonomous, bolstering opposition confidence in a key institution.  The question is whether Morales believes his party (and by extension his legacy) is worth preserving, or whether he wants to risk them for another dubious bid for reelection.  Claims that Morales’s setback is part of a “conservative tide” sweeping through Latin America may be premature, but this referendum may have repercussions elsewhere.  Ecuador’s Rafael Correa’s public comments that he would not seek reelection in 2017 may now become firmer.  The day of the three- or four-term president seems over.

March 3, 2016

* Miguel Centellas teaches political sociology at the Croft Institute for International Studies at the University of Mississippi.

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