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Bolivia

Mixed results

by Mirjam Gehrke

In brief

Fernando Lugo, the new president of Paraguay, welcomes election winner Evo Marales.

Fernando Lugo, the new president of Paraguay, welcomes election winner Evo Marales.

The referendum on 10 August confirmed Evo Morales in office as the president of a deeply divided country. 63 % voted that he should stay on as head of state. Nevertheless, the poll also strengthened opposition leaders who similarly triumphed in regional recall elections.

Winning almost two-thirds of the national vote, Morales received a resounding endorsement for his policy of nationalisation and his efforts to rewrite the constitution with the goal of granting more rights and more chances of economic and social participation to Bolivia’s indigenous majority. Key opposition leaders, however, were also strengthened. The governors of the resource-rich eastern lowland departments of Santa Cruz, Tarija, Beni and Pando are back in office with large majorities.

In recent months, these governors had scored sweeping victories in regional referendums on autonomy for their affluent departments. These referendums had been staged in response to fiscal encroachment by the central government, which demands a larger share of tax revenues from oil and gas exports. Morales plans to use the money – which formerly went into provincial coffers – to fund a national pension scheme. Known as the “Renta Dignidad” (Dignity Pension), this innovative programme would provide everyone over the age of 60 with a pension worth around € 220 a year. On the government’s agenda, moreover, are land reforms. Morales plans to repossess unused arable land in the lowlands and give it to landless campesinos.

According to observers, the results of the polls on 10 August have consolidated the deep split between Bolivia’s poor highlands, where the indigenous people are the majority, and the rich lowlands. In the lowlands, the white middle and upper classes are predominant; and they are nervous about what they call an “indio invasion”, the loss of economic privileges and interference with their European style culture. While the well-to-do fear they will lose out under the socialist government of former coca grower Morales, the indigenous majority, suppressed since the days of Spanish colonisation, are increasingly becoming assertive. They feel that there turn has finally come thanks to Morales.

The referendum was watched closely in neighbouring countries. After violence witnessed in the run-up to the ballot, there was praise for the peaceful conduct of the democratic poll.

Paraguay and Ecuador are monitoring developments in Bolivia with particular interest. In Paraguay, Fernando Lugo, a liberation theologian and former Catholic bishop, recently won presidential elections. He took office in August. In Ecuador, leftist President Rafael Correa is working on a new constitution and seeking to put his resource-rich country’s economy on a socialist course. Both presidents could learn from successes and failures in Bolivia.

Venezuela’s President Hugo Chávez is particularly interested in Morales succeeding. He needs Bolivia for his project of a “Bolivarian Alternative for the Americas” (ALBA), designed as a response to the failed “Free Trade Area of the Americas” (FTAA) the USA had tried to bring about. Chávez wants to make ALBA happen in cooperation with leftist governments, emphasising regional cooperation.

Argentina and Brazil, for their part, want Bolivia to be stable. The country is an important supplier of energy. Brazil gets more than half of its gas imports from Bolivia. Argentina relies on it for only a tenth of its gas, but does not want to tap its own reserves. Should political crisis in Bolivia deepen and violence escalate, migration would also increase. In the worst-case scenario of a current study, as many as one million people might flee to Argentina alone.

Morales and the opposing governors in Bolivia’s east must now demonstrate the readiness to engage in dialogue. Democracy is about more than legitimising those in power through a popular vote. Elected representatives need to compromise.

Mirjam Gehrke