Bolivian Referendum Results Analysis

Andrew Lyubarsky Aug 12, 2008

For the Movimiento a Socialismo and Evo Morales, Sunday was indubitably a good day. After having won the Bolivian presidency in 2005 with approximately 54% of the popular vote, Evo surprised everyone by not only winning the recall referendum convoked by the right-wing opposition, but by winning big, with over 62% of the vote. Commentators that had lamented Evo’s loss of support by his “frightening of the middle class” and “loss of the urban vote” were left surprised that Evo was able to not only consolidate his support in rural Bolivia to near unanimity, but make substantial inroads in urban centers such as Cochabamba, in which vocal anti-Morales sentiment is frequently heard. He even captured about 40% of the vote in Santa Cruz, the heart of the autonomist movement, and 49.6% in Chuquisaca, where just weeks ago he was violently prevented from entering its capital Sucre. A minor opponent of the government, Jose Luis Paredes, the governor of La Paz, was easily recalled, as was a major opponent, Manfred Reyes Villa of Cochabamba.

It is extremely likely that, as he announced in his victory speech, Evo will use this as a mandate to push more aggressively for his project of social transformation – a new, indigenous-centered constitution, nationalization of formerly-privatized industries, and a pursuit of land reform in Eastern Bolivia. He would be correct in doing so – with his achievement of such a clear mandate, it may be now or never for his government to act decisively. However, he needs to be conscious of numerous pitfalls along the way.

Government Support in Autonomist Regions Surprisingly High

Looking at the bright side, Evo’s roughly 40% approval in the autonomist states suggests that the opposition to his government voiced by regional leaders and the press does not represent significant sectors of society in the so-called “Media Luna” of opposition. Despite the radical opposition voiced to his government in his two years in power, this percentage actually represents an increase over the level of support he got there in 2005. However, his 60% disapproval there, along with the easy margins of victory for the opposition governors, suggests that the application of any kind of assertive policy that affects elite interests will be bitterly contested. While the right-wing is likely to wince at the magnitude of Evo’s victory and some of its ideologists may have held millenarian ideas of recalling him and restoring the order that had been broken by the “indio’s” victory, it is quite possible that defeating the president outright was never part of their strategy.

After the discrediting of neoliberal economic policy and the growing assertiveness of indigenous movements in the 1990s, the Bolivian right wing and traditional political structure realized that it had to prepare to lose hegemonic control over the national government. They were a predominantly white minority in a society still rife with colonial elements and an ideology of racial distinction, and a minority whose ideas of development and Bolivian society had long failed to resonate with the predominantly indigenous population. Thus, instead of waging the losing battle of contesting national control, they undertook, quite successfully, a project of regional consolidation in Eastern Bolivia, a wealthier region of the country with significant natural gas deposits and an export-based economy that grew under the neoliberal free-marketeers as its Andean neighbors struggled. A folkloric sense of “Santa Cruz-ness” which incorporated even recent migrants from highland Bolivia recast the question of power in regional terms in the universalistic language of a “struggle against centralism and dictatorship”.

The results of the referendum confirm this struggle for them, and they will continue unabated in their confrontational discourse. It is likely that despite winning a level of support unheard of for a Bolivian president in the democratic era, Evo will still be unable to visit 5 out of the country’s 9 states unless he is willing to use force to subdue violent right-wing youth groups, actions which could spark a wider conflagration. The tone of his latest speech was conciliatory to the victorious opposition prefects and called for dialogue, but as it becomes increasingly clear that they will agree only to a dialogue that preserves their rights to rule the East as their private fiefdoms, the government may have to become more aggressive.

Cochabamba in the Balance

The most proximate struggle will be over the blowout loss of Manfred Reyes Villa in Cochabamba, who got crushed by a 60-40% margin, but has repeatedly refused to accept the results of the referendum. The regional left-wing and MAS have a visceral hatred for Manfred, and will remove him by violence if he refuses to go quietly.

In January 2007, MAS tried to force Manfred to resign, angered after he attempted to call a second autonomy referendum after the question had already once been defeated in the state. They occupied the central square, and Manfred-sponsored goons from the upper-middle class areas of the cities descended on them, eager to “beat up some Indians”. Two MAS backers from rural areas and one upper-middle class teenager were killed in the conflict, the state building was briefly set on fire, and Manfred came off as the defender of democracy against an unruly mob.

This time, the democracy card is on the side of MAS. The question of the day is whether the right-wing opposition will circle its wagons to defend its ally in Cochabamba or decide that he is a lost cause and consent to a potential MAS takeover of the heartland of the country. While Manfred has had his conflicts with the right-wing parties (primarily for pushing this referendum in the first place), it is likely that they will not want to let the strategic center of the country slip from their grasp. While the process may be conflictual, it does appear that the right wing’s days in the province are numbered.

Dialogue or Confrontation?

The rhetoric of the mainstream political commentators in Bolivia have always sought to call the left and right wings to a “dialogue”, in which their widely divergent visions of the country could be made compatible. This type of idea is reminiscent to that pushed by former Bolivian president Carlos Mesa, who valued the idea of “social peace” by trying (and ultimately failing) to maintain a centrist politics between the indigenous left and the autonomist right. The goals of Evo Morales, however, involve the deepening of the revolutionary process of indigenous empowerment, which is inherently a process that creates conflict when it hits the wall of the entrenched resistance of privileged classes. Dialogue there may be, but it is extremely unlikely that either the government or the opposition can compromise on their core positions. For Evo to forego the pursuit of land reform in the East would be to break his promises to transform the social structure of the country; for the autonomists to allow it would challenge the very foundations of their power. Dialogue can and will happen, but it is not to be viewed as a universal panacea that will accommodate everyone.

The Bolivian daily La Razon described the situation thusly. “If we were tied 1-1 [before the vote], now we have returned to a tie, but a 3-3 tie. What use will these actors get from their victories?” This is an analysis that doesn’t take into account the very real boost that Evo and his supporters will take out of these elections, but it does capture the idea that both the left and the right wing have won, at different scalar levels of the Bolivian state. After a great deal of theater and the dispatching of some minor characters, we are left with both the heroes and villains standing emboldened as the dust settles. Bolivia’s rebirth still hangs in the balance.

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