The Latest Turn of Bolivia’s Political Merry-Go-Round: The Constitutional Referendum

Evo Morales and Garciìa Linera

On the Feb­ru­ary 21, Bolivia returns to the polls to decide whether pres­i­dent Evo Morales and his run­ning mate, soci­ol­o­gist Álvaro Gar­cía Lin­era, can stand for a fur­ther term. Morales is still very pop­u­lar amongst the Boli­vian elec­torate, enjoy­ing a sat­is­fac­tion rat­ing of some­where between 60 and 70 per­cent.1 Evo is in many ways a remark­able polit­i­cal fig­ure, a man with many firsts to his name. He was Bolivia’s first indige­nous pres­i­dent; he and his par­ty, Movimien­to al Social­is­mo (or the MAS) were the first polit­i­cal par­ty to win an over­all major­i­ty in elec­tions since the return to democ­ra­cy in 1982; and they were the first incum­bent gov­ern­ment to get re-elect­ed. They have now man­aged this feat twice, main­tain­ing their major­i­ty on both occa­sions.2 No one in Bolivia’s two-hun­dred year repub­li­can peri­od can claim to have had the same elec­toral suc­cess that Evo Morales and the MAS have enjoyed. The prob­lem that the MAS’ polit­i­cal project faces now is one of suc­ces­sion. The prob­lem for Bolivia more gen­er­al­ly is far more seri­ous.

Bolivia’s lat­est con­sti­tu­tion, designed by a Con­stituent Assem­bly and intro­duced on 25 Jan­u­ary 2009, is the country’s sev­en­teen­th. Bolivia, then, is not a coun­try unac­cus­tomed to con­sti­tu­tion­al change. Cur­rent­ly, Boli­vian pres­i­dents and their vice-pres­i­dents are only allowed to run for two terms. Morales was allowed to run for a third term through a vote in con­gress. The house stat­ed his third term was his sec­ond con­sti­tu­tion­al­ly, as Morales was elect­ed before the intro­duc­tion of the new con­sti­tu­tion. This rep­re­sent­ed a “re-found­ing of the coun­try,” and so all slates were wiped clean with its intro­duc­tion in 2009.3 The ref­er­en­dum is a con­sul­ta­tion with the Boli­vian peo­ple to see whether the gov­ern­ment can change arti­cle 168.4 A vote in the ref­er­en­dum would give the gov­ern­ment a man­date to change the con­sti­tu­tion for the sec­ond time in Morales’ tenure, allow­ing him and vice-pres­i­dent Gar­cía Lin­era to gov­ern until 2025.

Much of the debate about the ref­er­en­dum in Bolivia itself has focused upon the feroc­i­ty of the cam­paigns, with the Boli­vian news­pa­per Pag­i­na Siete describ­ing recent events as a descent into a “war of accu­sa­tions.”5 The cam­paign is cur­rent­ly slight­ly ahead in two out of three polls per­formed in Jan­u­ary. Poll­sters IPSOS esti­mate that 49 per­cent of the Boli­vian pub­lic are in favor of the reform and 39 per­cent are again­st, whilst 11 per­cent are unde­cid­ed (the fig­ures are more deci­sive­ly in MAS’ favor in rural areas, 61 per­cent com­pared to 28 per­cent no); El Deber  and La Razón present the con­test to be a much closer affair, 41 per­cent ver­sus 37 per­cent no; whilst IPSOS Bolivia put no ahead of on 44 per­cent and 38 per­cent respec­tive­ly.6 Whichev­er poll you believe, it is going to be a close-run thing.

How­ev­er, at this junc­ture there are oth­er more per­ti­nent ques­tions to ask: why does Evo Morales feel the need to return to gov­ern for a fourth term? And why have the process­es of state con­struc­tion under his tenure led to such a ster­ile polit­i­cal envi­ron­ment in Bolivia? A crit­i­cal exam­i­na­tion of democ­ra­cy reveals the ten­sions at the heart of this process; the lib­er­al rep­re­sen­ta­tive democ­ra­cy of the state is marked­ly dif­fer­ent from the rad­i­cal democ­ra­cy prac­ticed by the social move­ments that car­ried Morales to pow­er. The move­ments of 2000-2005 saw new forms of rad­i­cal democ­ra­cy – influ­enced by indige­nous cul­tures – emerge and become an impor­tant aspect of how Boli­vians under­stood and par­tic­i­pat­ed in process­es of change. A crit­i­cal approach to democ­ra­cy helps address ques­tions of why Bolivia’s rad­i­cal trans­for­ma­tion has become embod­ied in Morales; why there is such a dearth of pos­si­ble suc­ces­sors to Morales (or alter­na­tives in Boli­vian civil soci­ety); and why we should be con­cerned about the con­sti­tu­tion­al ref­er­en­dum.

The Elusive Essence of Democracy

In recent times, democ­ra­cy has too often been col­lapsed into lib­er­al­ism (not with­out prob­lems); so it is vital to rec­og­nize democ­ra­cy as a port­man­teau con­cept con­tain­ing two oppos­ing tra­di­tions.7 On the one hand, the illu­sion of equal­i­ty between all men – essen­tial for the con­struc­tion of the bour­geois class – is at the heart of lib­er­al rep­re­sen­ta­tive democ­ra­cy. Lib­er­al democ­ra­cy can­not be ful­ly under­stood with­out con­sid­er­a­tion of its dialec­ti­cal rela­tion­ship with cap­i­tal­ism. As cap­i­tal­ism frees peo­ple from their oblig­a­tion to the land, the increas­ing­ly alien­at­ed indi­vid­u­al becomes detached, not only from the demands of the feu­dal lord or lat­i­fun­dia own­er, but also from “cus­tom­ary, cor­po­rate, pre­scrip­tive and com­mu­nal iden­ti­ties and oblig­a­tions.”8 The eco­nom­ic imper­a­tives of labor under cap­i­tal­ism do not depend on sub­or­di­nate polit­i­cal or juridi­cal sta­tus (as in feu­dal­ism), so labor can be afford­ed polit­i­cal and juridi­cal equal­i­ty with­out, as polit­i­cal Marx­ist Ellen Meiksins Wood states, “depriv­ing cap­i­tal of its appro­pri­at­ing pow­er.”9 As cap­i­tal­ism devel­ops, the “polit­i­cal” are­na becomes sep­a­rat­ed from the “eco­nom­ic” sphere, with stark con­se­quences for the order­ing of soci­ety. Polit­i­cal strug­gles become alien­at­ed from the log­ic of cap­i­tal and con­fined to the “for­mal” polit­i­cal sphere. The cen­tral tenets of “indi­vid­u­al rights” and “civil lib­er­ties” mark out the depoliti­ciza­tion of civil soci­ety as the state is wrenched from – and placed above – civil soci­ety. Democ­ra­cy assumes a rep­re­sen­ta­tive form – some­thing that is at odds with the orig­i­nal under­stand­ing of democ­ra­cy as the rule of the peo­ple – as cit­i­zens vote for mem­bers of a select group, and legit­i­mate pol­i­tics out­side the par­lia­men­tary sphere dis­ap­pears.10 This means that uni­ver­sal suf­frage and an exten­sion of polit­i­cal rights can be grant­ed to the gen­er­al pop­u­la­tion, as long as they do not impinge on the func­tion­ing of cap­i­tal­ism.

Under a cap­i­tal­ist lib­er­al democ­ra­cy, the nation­al-pop­u­lar (to bor­row Gramsci’s for­mu­la­tion) must become the nat­u­ral form of civil soci­ety as state and civil soci­ety emerge as dis­tinct but inter­con­nect­ed enti­ties. This enables the con­struc­tion of a uni­fied mar­ket through the sub­sump­tion of oth­er social forms.11 Lib­er­al democ­ra­cy thus has a spa­tial ele­ment  – the “imag­ined com­mu­ni­ty” of a nation state – which is con­struct­ed through his­tor­i­cal events and dis­cours­es.12 In oth­er words, although lib­er­al democ­ra­cy does not need to func­tion over a monoeth­nic or mono­lin­gual com­mu­ni­ty, it does require a col­lec­tive sub­jec­tiv­i­ty in order to func­tion prop­er­ly.

Through­out much of Bolivia’s his­to­ry, the con­struc­tion of the col­lec­tive sub­jec­tiv­i­ty of the nation­al-pop­u­lar – or attempts at it – has tak­en prece­dence over the func­tion­ing of lib­er­al democ­ra­cy itself. Bolivia is a het­ero­ge­neous or mot­ley soci­ety, com­prised of 36 rec­og­nized indige­nous groups, that for a long time lacked the prop­er recourse need­ed if even the facade of democ­ra­cy was to be upheld. The rea­sons for this can be found in the work of René Zavale­ta Mer­cado, arguably the most impor­tant Boli­vian thinker of the twen­ti­eth cen­tu­ry. Zavale­ta delin­eates three stages of lib­er­al democ­ra­cy in Bolivia, a place where lib­er­al democ­ra­cy is a non-native enti­ty.13 First­ly, there was the peri­od after inde­pen­dence from Span­ish colo­nial rule where only mes­ti­zo males could vote, and democ­ra­cy oper­at­ed over only the illu­sion of a nation.14 Sec­ond­ly, the nation­al rev­o­lu­tion in 1952 brought uni­ver­sal suf­frage to Boli­vian cit­i­zens, but it was unable to uni­fy the inter­nal mar­ket or the nation. Third­ly, the advent of neolib­er­al­ism in Bolivia trans­formed Boli­vian soci­ety and final­ly uni­fied the inter­nal mar­ket (although it was inca­pable of uni­fy­ing the nation), trans­form­ing democ­ra­cy into the dic­ta­tor­ship of the bour­geoisie. The fail­ure, his­tor­i­cal­ly, to con­struct a nation­al uni­ty led to con­tin­u­al laps­es into the bar­barism of mil­i­tary coup d’états, a prob­lem that was only over­come in the third stage of Boli­vian lib­er­al democ­ra­cy that start­ed in 1985.

On the oth­er hand, a dif­fer­ent type democ­ra­cy – much closer to the rule of the demos imag­ined by the ancient Greeks – is at the heart of the new left in Bolivia. This rad­i­cal form of democ­ra­cy was present in the social move­ments between 2000 and 2005, who prac­ticed mass par­tic­i­pa­tion and con­sen­sus pol­i­tics. Rad­i­cal democ­ra­cy is char­ac­ter­ized by appren­tice­ship – not schol­ar­ship – and cul­tur­al cus­toms and wis­doms are passed down through the gen­er­a­tions as peo­ple par­tic­i­pate in democ­ra­cy with­in the com­mu­ni­ty.15 The social move­ments of some fif­teen-years ago increased the par­tic­i­pa­tion of the sub­al­tern class­es through direct democ­ra­cy prac­ticed in an open-air forum, com­mon­ly know as the cabil­do abier­to. A cen­tral demand of this mas­sive open-air forum was a Pop­u­lar (or Con­stituent) Assem­bly. The Con­stituent Assem­bly was imag­ined as an expres­sion of true work­ing-class and indige­nous democ­ra­cy, to be com­prised of, accord­ing to anthro­pol­o­gist Rober­to Albro, “del­e­gates from indige­nous com­mu­ni­ties and urban neigh­bor­hood asso­ci­a­tions, along with work­er, trade, and agrar­i­an unions.’”16 This was to be a true moment of rad­i­cal polit­i­cal plu­ral­ism capa­ble of con­struct­ing a new social order.17 It was sup­posed to be an exten­sion of the direct democ­ra­cy prac­ticed by the cabil­do abier­to, where events were dis­cussed and actions planned through con­sen­sus. The dri­ving force behind this rad­i­cal­ism was the Uni­ty Pact, an alliance of left-indige­nous organ­i­sa­tions formed in San­ta Cruz in 2004.18 This rad­i­cal democ­ra­cy thus assumes a com­plete­ly dif­fer­ent char­ac­ter to the lib­er­al democ­ra­cy of the state. It is based on an equal­i­ty won by sub­al­tern groups through strug­gles again­st the struc­tures at the root of social inequal­i­ty.

As we have seen, democ­ra­cy is more com­plex a con­cept than the nar­row lib­er­al under­stand­ing that is some­times pre­sent­ed as the only form of democ­ra­cy. It is a con­test­ed notion that con­tains both the shack­les of the oppressed and their lib­er­a­tion. It is the ten­sions between the­se two forms of democ­ra­cy that has a fea­ture of Bolivia under the MAS’ régime, and it also lies at the heart of the con­sti­tu­tion­al ref­er­en­dum.

Negotiating an Exit: Rebuilding democracy under MAS

The régime of the MAS has been a peri­od of recon­sti­tut­ed rep­re­sen­ta­tive democ­ra­cy and a polit­i­cal econ­o­my depen­dent on roy­alties from the extrac­tion of hydro­car­bons. The social move­ments of 2000-2005 were in part gal­va­nized by a fis­cal cri­sis of the state in the late-1990s, as the neolib­er­al gov­ern­ment of Gon­za­lo Sánchez de Lozada pri­va­tized the main source of state rev­enue. First the state-run hydro­car­bons firm Yacimien­tos Petrolífer­os Fis­cales Boli­vianos, YPFB, was pri­va­tized through the 1994 Law of Cap­i­tal­i­sa­tion, then well-head roy­alties were reduced through 1996 Hydro­car­bons Law, decreas­ing the state’s bud­get by $552 mil­lion per year.19 How­ev­er, dur­ing MAS’ tenure, Bolivia has enjoyed the ben­e­fits of a glob­al com­modi­ties boom between 2008 and 2013. Re-nego­ti­at­ed well-head roy­alties of 50 per­cent, high glob­al prices for Bolivia’s main export – nat­u­ral gas – and new­ly com­plet­ed pipeli­nes to Argen­tine and Brazil­ian mar­kets led to boom­ing prof­its in the hydro­car­bons sec­tor, and a mas­sive increase in state rev­enue.20 The state has used this rev­enue to pay for a lim­it­ed redis­trib­u­tive pack­age, whilst at the same time dili­gent­ly build­ing up a stock­pile of for­eign reserves through what The Wash­ing­ton Post describes as “fis­cal pru­dence.”21 Nev­er­the­less, there has been lit­tle struc­tural change in Bolivia’s econ­o­my, and the sec­tors of cap­i­tal accu­mu­la­tion at the heart of the MAS’ polit­i­cal econ­o­my are still main­ly multi­na­tion­al cap­i­tal in low­land agribusi­ness, hydro­car­bons and min­ing; com­ple­ment­ed by the incip­i­ent bour­geoisie in coop­er­a­tive min­ing, com­mer­cial trad­ing, con­tra­band and nar­cotics.22 The­se forms of cap­i­tal accu­mu­la­tion come direct­ly into con­flict with the indige­nous prin­ci­ple of vivir bien and the rad­i­cal demands of the social move­ments.

The MAS is not, as some would claim, a sim­ple coun­ter-rev­o­lu­tion­ary actor again­st the rad­i­cal­ism of the social move­ments that brought Morales to pow­er. We must be care­ful not to tar Morales with the same brush as some of his polit­i­cal oppo­nents: the MAS, the neolib­er­al regime of Gon­za­lo Sánchez de Lozada and the far-right civic-gov­er­nors behind the failed coup attempt in 2008 are not the same thing.23 It is more help­ful to view the recon­struc­tion of rep­re­sen­ta­tive democ­ra­cy through the prism of a “restora­tion-rev­o­lu­tion dialec­tic.”24 The form that the trans­for­ma­tion of the state assumed – con­ser­v­a­tive reform dressed up as pro­gress or gen­uine­ly pro­gres­sive changes that are cur­tailed by restora­tive fac­tions – was deter­mined by the pow­er dynam­ic between “rev­o­lu­tion­ary” pres­sures from below and push­es for “restora­tion” from above.

This is how we can con­ceive the changes in Bolivia since 2005. The trans­for­ma­tion of Boli­vian soci­ety gal­va­nized by the social move­ments of 2000-2005 has led to a qual­i­ta­tive­ly dif­fer­ent type of par­lia­men­tary pol­i­tics and democ­ra­cy in Bolivia. The coca-grow­ers move­ment again­st US-led erad­i­ca­tion pro­grams and Aymara nation­al­ism found­ed on the social unit of the ayl­lu have found expres­sion on the for­mal polit­i­cal ter­rain. Polit­i­cal actors that were long denied rep­re­sen­ta­tion in Boli­vian par­lia­ment have found that they now have rep­re­sen­ta­tives from their com­mu­ni­ties who share their out­look, and fought alongside them in their strug­gles. May­be this is part of the rea­son why Morales’ pop­u­lar­i­ty remains so high, and it may also explain why Morales was able to become the first incum­bent to be re-elect­ed. How­ev­er, this was not a com­plete trans­for­ma­tion, an unre­strained rev­o­lu­tion that mould­ed this new Bolivia in the imag­ined form of the social move­ments.

An impor­tant ques­tion that has to be asked at this junc­ture is “how have pre­vi­ous­ly exclud­ed (or at the very least under-rep­re­sent­ed) actors who engaged with social move­ments gained rep­re­sen­ta­tion inside par­lia­ment?” On the one hand, it rep­re­sents a step for­ward, and a pro­gres­sive turn as far as par­lia­men­tar­i­an­ism is con­cerned. But if we con­sid­er the process­es that led to this sup­pos­ed­ly pro­gres­sive result, we come to slight­ly dif­fer­ent con­clu­sions. The­se new rep­re­sen­ta­tives in par­lia­ment were inte­grat­ed into MAS dur­ing the peri­od fol­low­ing the social upheavals of 2000-2005: “those who engaged in prac­tices of organ­i­sa­tion, artic­u­la­tion and direc­tion in rela­tion to the con­struc­tion of a his­toric bloc (the mass of social move­ments between 2000-2005) and a project of civil­i­sa­tion, state and soci­ety” became part of the MAS and their project.25 This is the process that Gram­sci labelled “trans­formism,” but what does it mean in the Boli­vian con­text? The absorp­tion of social move­ment lead­ers was designed to help main­tain an organ­ic link between the mil­i­tant sec­tors of soci­ety that were respon­si­ble for the upheaval of the state, and the for­mal polit­i­cal project of the MAS.

How­ev­er, this process has led to a num­ber of per­verse out­comes. First­ly, because the MAS was more inter­est­ed in pur­su­ing a par­lia­men­tary course and solid­i­fy­ing its place with­in the pre-exist­ing lib­er­al demo­c­ra­t­ic struc­tures, the rad­i­cal democ­ra­cy of the social move­ments was cur­tailed. The pluri-polit­i­cal and rad­i­cal demo­c­ra­t­ic fea­tures that shaped the inter­nal hori­zons of the social move­ments were replaced by rep­re­sen­ta­tive democ­ra­cy, reduc­ing democ­ra­cy to the same nucle­us as the state.26 Through­out the peri­od of the con­stituent assem­bly (and right up to their sec­ond elec­toral vic­to­ry) the MAS was more con­cerned about con­sol­i­dat­ing the gains achieved by the 2005 elec­toral vic­to­ry than try­ing to rad­i­cal­ize democ­ra­cy itself and imple­ment the imag­ined trans­for­ma­tions of the social move­ments. That would have required dis­man­tling the very sys­tem that pro­vid­ed the MAS with its legit­i­ma­cy, a move that would have under­mined its posi­tion at the head of the restora­tive process. Instead, it con­cen­trat­ed all of the gains of the past decade – the vic­to­ries again­st neolib­er­al­ism and the old repub­li­can state – at the heart of the par­ty, until they became indis­tin­guish­able from Morales him­self. The pres­i­dent, for many, has become the embod­i­ment of the trans­for­ma­tions achieved by the mass move­ments, obscur­ing the poten­tial for more rad­i­cal change. For MASistas, Evo is syn­ony­mous with the pover­ty reduc­tion over the past ten years, and with the increase in health and devel­op­ment indi­ca­tors.27 He has become the sole rea­son for the­se changes, even though much of this improve­ment has been due not to a mas­sive increase in social spend­ing (the pro­por­tion of GDP spent on con­di­tion­al class trans­fer pro­gram sits at a measly 1.6 per­cent), but the glob­al boom in com­mod­i­ty prices between 2008 and 2013.28 Amongst this sec­tion of the pop­u­la­tion Evo is becom­ing, con­tends Pablo Ste­fanoni, a fig­ure rivalling the epony­mous Tupaj Katari.29 Indeed, this is an image he him­self has tried to gar­ner, with the gov­ern­ment mobil­is­ing the leg­end of Tupaj Katari, the indige­nous lead­er that laid siege to La Paz in 1781, as a rhetor­i­cal tool through­out its pre­mier­ship. One sim­ply needs to look to the skies, to Bolivia’s new satel­lite Tupaj Katari 1, to find evi­dence of this.

The sec­ond result of trans­formism has been to decap­i­tate local-lev­el com­mu­ni­ty organ­i­sa­tions and projects. Their lead­ers have either been denounced as heretics; or become MASis­tas, drawn into the par­ty and denied the oppor­tu­ni­ty to oper­ate autonomous­ly and devel­op the lead­er­ship skills need­ed to run the coun­try. Dur­ing the peri­od of intense strug­gle, social move­ments became incu­ba­tors of rad­i­cal­ism and lead­er­ship, with Evo Morales, Felipe Quis­pe and Ale­jo Vél­iz all emerg­ing as vibrant lead­ers in the 1980s and 1990s. Strug­gles again­st the dic­ta­tor­ships of the 1970s, coca erad­i­ca­tion and the harsh social pro­grams of the 1980s and 1990s bred a gen­er­a­tion of civil soci­ety lead­ers who pos­sessed the skills and capac­i­ty to lead effec­tive­ly. At this moment in time, there is not the same depth of lead­er­ship, nor the same oppor­tu­ni­ties to devel­op the­se vital skills.

On the one hand, all social strug­gles again­st the MAS’s polit­i­cal project – the clear­est exam­ple being the con­flict over the high­way being built through the TIPNIS nation­al park – are labelled as coun­ter-rev­o­lu­tion­ary, and por­trayed as ene­mies of the state. The socio-pop­u­lar bloc formed of numer­ous dif­fer­ent social move­ments in 2000-2005 was hard­ly homo­ge­neous, and has always been char­ac­ter­ized by inter­nal con­tra­dic­tions and ten­sions. How­ev­er, the­se antin­o­mies have become more pro­nounced since the start of this con­flict. The gov­ern­ment has attempt­ed – albeit with lim­it­ed suc­cess – to tack­le the inter­nal con­tra­dic­tions expressed in this con­flict by cre­at­ing a dichoto­my of friend-foe, accus­ing low­land indige­nous groups who are again­st the con­struc­tion of the road through the TIPNIS nation­al park as frac­tur­ing the socio-pop­u­lar bloc of the rev­o­lu­tion and hin­der­ing the process of change.30 Con­se­quent­ly, the low­land move­ments and the high­land move­ments are dis­trust­ful of one anoth­er, jeal­ous of the gains in ter­ri­to­ry or polit­i­cal priv­i­leges that the oth­er is given. The­se ten­sions are com­pound­ed by con­trast­ing per­spec­tives on the tra­jec­to­ry Bolivia should fol­low: the indige­nous peo­ples rep­re­sent­ed by the Con­fed­er­a­tion of Indige­nous Peo­ples of Bolivia, CIDOB, and the Nation­al Coun­cil of Ayl­lus and Markas of Qul­la­suyu, CONAMAQ, do not share the same devel­op­men­tal­ist per­spec­tive as the col­o­niz­ers – peas­ant-farm­ers who moved from the harsh con­di­tions of the alti­plano to the agri­cul­tur­al fron­tiers in search of land and pros­per­i­ty from the 1950s onwards – and the cocaleros (coca-grow­ers). In 2011 the first signs of rup­ture emerged, with CIDOB and CONAMAQ split­ting from the Uni­ty Pact. Once CIDOB and CONAMAQ had for­mal­ly left the Uni­ty Pact, the MAS began a cam­paign to under­mine their capac­i­ties. In 2012, MASis­tas with­in CIDOB decried the elect­ed offi­cials and demand­ed the elec­tion of new author­i­ties through “an extend­ed com­mis­sion;” whilst in Decem­ber 2013, a minor­i­ty of MAS sup­port­ers with­in CONAMAQ occu­pied its head­quar­ters, vio­lent­ly expelling the legit­i­mate author­i­ties with the help of the police.31 Amongst Evo’s swathes of sup­port­ers – the rank and file now dom­i­nat­ed by mar­ket-ori­ent­ed coop­er­a­tive min­ers, coca-grow­ers and the incip­i­ent Aymara bour­geoisie –  lead­ers who speak out again­st the gov­ern­ment are not to be trust­ed, as the state denounces polit­i­cal action over con­tro­ver­sial issues as self­ish acts in defence of self-inter­est.

On the oth­er hand, those lead­ers who became a part of the MAS are part of a project that has become increas­ing­ly about one man, mak­ing it dif­fi­cult for poten­tial suc­ces­sors to build up the lead­er­ship skills and pub­lic respect need­ed to suc­ceed Morales. The peas­ant union, the CSUTCB, the col­o­niz­ers and the coca-grow­ing unions stay loy­al to Morales, whilst rural infra­struc­ture projects run by El Fon­do Indí­ge­na are man­aged main­ly by MASis­tas.32 The­se groups are tied to the project of the MAS, unable to ful­fil their rad­i­cal­ism of over ten-years ago. Jorge Viaña high­lights the con­se­quences of the­se ties, demon­strat­ing that it is not just inside the edi­fice of the state where con­ser­v­a­tive ten­den­cies have tak­en root.33 As deci­sion-mak­ing has been monop­o­lized with­in the heart of the state, the schism between the gov­ern­ment and its sup­port base has widened. Social move­ments have expe­ri­enced alien­ation through exclu­sion from demo­c­ra­t­ic process­es, frag­ment­ing move­ments and dimin­ish­ing the sense that a deep­en­ing of the process of change is pos­si­ble. The con­ser­v­a­tive ten­den­cies that emerged with TIPNIS con­flict in June 2010 have become, through this process of “trans­formism,” present not just in the for­mal struc­tures of the state, but with the social move­ments them­selves.

Democratic Tensions

MAS assumed pow­er in a time of cri­sis: the state struc­tures were weak and lacked legit­i­ma­cy. There was a real oppor­tu­ni­ty to recon­struct the state in the image of the rad­i­cal democ­ra­cy of the social move­ments. How­ev­er, the MAS decid­ed to use the rhetoric of pluri­na­tion­al­ism and auton­o­my – cen­tral pil­lars of the rad­i­cal democ­ra­cy prac­ticed dur­ing 2000-2005 – to recon­sti­tute the state and its lib­er­al insti­tu­tions.  The gov­ern­ment embarked upon a project of restora­tion, the re-con­struc­tion of a nation-state and the con­sol­i­da­tion of rep­re­sen­ta­tive democ­ra­cy in order to main­tain the author­i­ty and legit­i­ma­cy of the MAS itself. This nec­es­sar­i­ly required deci­sion to be cen­tral­ized and con­cen­trat­ed inside the state through the con­sol­i­da­tion of lib­er­al democ­ra­cy. This was per­formed under the guise of “pluri­na­tion­al­ism,” a com­plex idea con­tain­ing a mul­ti-lay­ered con­cep­tion of auton­o­my, where indige­nous orig­i­nary ter­ri­to­ries, indige­nous orig­i­nary peas­ant regions, inter­cul­tur­al regions and depart­ments were assigned a lev­el of self-deter­mi­na­tion.34 Rather than exist­ing over a sin­gle, geo­graph­i­cal­ly defined com­mu­ni­ty, pluri­na­tion­al­ism bor­rows a non-spa­tial­i­ty from the Aymara ayl­lus, whose abil­i­ty to func­tion is not lim­it­ed by over­lap­ping geo­graph­i­cal ter­ri­to­ries. Pluri­na­tion­al­ism is ground­ed in the rad­i­cal democ­ra­cy of the com­mu­ni­ty assem­blies, where decen­tral­ized deci­sion-mak­ing and con­sen­sus trump con­cen­trat­ed pow­er and major­i­ty rule. “Rota­tion” and “oblig­a­tion” are the cor­ner­stones of this rad­i­cal con­cep­tion of democ­ra­cy, rather than the lib­er­al ide­als of “rights” and “respon­si­bil­i­ties.” “The fight to con­struct a [rad­i­cal] pluri­na­tion­al state,” in the words of Viaña, “is the fight to usurp the per­verse forms of lib­er­al moder­ni­ty, which expro­pri­ates col­lec­tive sov­er­eign­ty in the name of rep­re­sen­ta­tion.”35 The true self-man­age­ment and auton­o­my of this pluri­na­tion­al­ism have been ignored by MAS, who have used it to con­sol­i­date a con­tra­dic­to­ry form democ­ra­cy, a lib­er­al form of democ­ra­cy.

A fur­ther term for Evo Morales does not lead Bolivia out of this impasse, beyond the con­tra­dic­tions of democ­ra­cy in Bolivia. How­ev­er, what we can say is that the con­sti­tu­tion­al ref­er­en­dum is at odds with the val­ues at the heart of the indige­nous com­mu­ni­ties that Morales pur­port­ed­ly rep­re­sents. Key to the organ­i­sa­tion of the ayl­lus, and also salient to the mobil­i­sa­tion of actors in the social move­ments of 2000-2005, were the ideas of “rota­tion” and “oblig­a­tion.” In Aymara com­mu­ni­ties, every­one is expect­ed at one time or anoth­er to per­form lead­er­ship roles (as well as oth­er func­tions too). Fam­i­lies were oblig­at­ed to send one fam­i­ly mem­ber to com­mu­ni­ty coun­cils, and to the road­blocks at the height of the protests. How­ev­er, this was coun­ter­bal­anced with the idea of “rota­tion”: once some­one had per­formed a task for the com­mu­ni­ty, they stepped down and passed the buck to anoth­er com­mu­ni­ty mem­ber. Morales, by ask­ing for a fourth term, is direct­ly in con­flict with the­se ide­als. This has not gone unno­ticed by many with­in MAS, and some of the cen­tral pro­tag­o­nists of the no cam­paign, includ­ing gov­er­nor of La Paz Felix Patzi, are ex-MASis­tas.36 The prob­lem is that Morales has for many become the per­son­i­fi­ca­tion of gains of recent times, – gains that were won from below –  and trans­formed into the posi­tion he is occu­py­ing, pre­vent­ing the rota­tion of lead­er­ship. The con­sti­tu­tion­al ref­er­en­dum of 21 Feb­ru­ary rep­re­sents a refusal to adhere to the demo­c­ra­t­ic prin­ci­pals of the social move­ments which brought Evo Morales to pow­er, and a rejec­tion of indige­nous prac­tices. In choos­ing to con­sol­i­date the west­ern tra­di­tion of lib­er­al democ­ra­cy, Morales has exclud­ed the very peo­ple he claims to rep­re­sent. The con­sti­tu­tion­al ref­er­en­dum is but the lat­est expres­sion of the ten­sions caused by this exclu­sion. A vote in the ref­er­en­dum may allow Morales to con­tin­ue for a fourth term, but it does not address the deep­er con­tra­dic­tions that lie at the heart of democ­ra­cy in Bolivia today.


  1. Nick Miroff, “Left­ists are wob­bling in South Amer­i­ca: Here’s why Bolivia’s Evo Morales may be the last social­ist stand­ing,” Wash­ing­ton Post, Jan­u­ary 7, 2016; “Bolivia votará el 21 de febrero si per­mite la reelec­ción de Evo Morales has­ta 2025,” El Mundo, Sep­tem­ber 23, 2015; “Bolivia’s par­lia­ment pass­es law to let Evo Morales run for anoth­er term,” The Guardian, Sep­tem­ber 27, 2015. 

  2. MAS won 54 per­cent of the vote in Decem­ber 2005, 64 per­cent in Decem­ber 2009, and 61 per­cent in Octo­ber 2014. Jef­fery R. Web­ber, “Bur­dens of a State Man­ager,” View­point Mag­a­zine, Feb­ru­ary 25, 2015. 

  3. Pablo Ste­fanoni, “Evo, el refer­én­dum y su ‘re-re-reelec­ción,’” Rebe­lión, Novem­ber 2, 2015; “Bolivia’s par­lia­ment pass­es law,” The Guardian

  4. Gise­la Brito and Shirley Ampuero, “El Ref­er­en­do Con­sti­tu­cional y la reelec­ción pres­i­den­cial,” Rebe­lión. Jan­u­ary 23, 2016. 

  5. Wendy Pin­to, La cam­paña se crispa por guer­ra de acusa­ciones,” Pag­i­na Siete, Jan­u­ary 13, 2016; Luis Meal­la, Gob­ier­no crit­i­ca de nuevo a Mesa y éste lamen­ta la ‘fal­sa polémi­ca’,” La Razón, Jan­u­ary 11, 2016. 

  6. Brito and Ampuero, “El Ref­er­en­do Con­sti­tu­cional y la reelec­ción pres­i­den­cial”; Den­nis, Luiza­ga, “Encues­ta señala que el Sí tiene respal­do del 41%,” La Razón, Jan­u­ary 12, 2016. 

  7. See Ellen Meiksins Wood, Democ­ra­cy again­st Cap­i­tal­ism: Renew­ing His­tor­i­cal Mate­ri­al­ism (Cam­bridge: Cam­bridge Uni­ver­si­ty Press, 1995), 225-37. 

  8. Ibid, 220. Lat­i­fun­dia are large agri­cul­tur­al estates in Lat­in Amer­i­ca. 

  9. Ibid, 201. 

  10. Ibid, 217. 

  11. René Zavale­ta Mer­cado, “Las masas en noviem­bre,” in Obra com­ple­ta: René Zavale­ta Mer­cado, tomo II: Ensayos 1975-1984 (La Paz: Plu­ral edi­tores, 2011), 129. 

  12. Álavaro Gar­cía Lin­era, Ple­beian Pow­er: Col­lec­tive Action and Indige­nous, Work­ing-Class and Pop­u­lar Iden­ti­ties in Bolivia (Chicago: Hay­mar­ket Books, 2015), 171. 

  13. See Zavale­ta Mer­cado, “Cua­tro con­cep­tos de la democ­ra­cia,” in Obra com­ple­ta, tomo II, 513-30. 

  14. A mes­ti­zo is some­one of Span­ish descent. 

  15. Wood, Democ­ra­cy again­st Cap­i­tal­ism, 193. 

  16. Robert Albro, “The Cul­ture of Democ­ra­cy and Bolivia’s Indige­nous Move­ments,” Cri­tique of Anthro­pol­o­gy 26, no. 4 (Decem­ber 2006): 388. 

  17. Luis Tapia, El Esta­do de Dere­cho como Tiranía (La Paz: CIDES, 2011), 90. 

  18. Web­ber, “Polit­i­cal The­atre in Bolivia,” Her­ramien­ta 56 (2015): 4. 

  19. Claire Mcguigan, The ben­e­fits of FDI: is for­eign invest­ment in Bolivia’s oil and gas deliv­er­ing? (La Paz: CEDLA, 2007), 52. 

  20. See Car­los Arze Var­gas and Javier Gómez, “Bolivia: ¿El “Pro­ce­so de Cam­bio” nos Con­duce al Vivir Bien?,” in Prome­sas en su laber­in­to, eds. Car­los Arze Var­gas et al. (Buenos Aires: CLACSO, 2013). 

  21. Nick Miroff, “Left­ists are Wob­bling in Lat­in Amer­i­ca. Here’s Why Evo Morales May Be the Last Social­ist Stand­ing,” Wash­ing­ton Post, Jan­u­ary 7, 2016.  

  22. Web­ber, “Bur­dens of a State Man­ager.” 

  23. The attempt­ed coup was orches­trat­ed by civic com­mit­tee lead­er Branko Marinkovic and depart­men­tal per­fect Rubén Costa in San­ta Cruz. See Jef­frey R. Web­ber, From Rebel­lion to Reform in Bolivia: Class Strug­gle, Indige­nous Lib­er­a­tion, and the Pol­i­tics of Evo Morales (Chicago: Hay­mar­ket Books, 2011), 132. 

  24. Anto­nio Gram­sci, Quaderni del carcere (Rome: Ein­audi, 1975), Q9:§133; cit­ed in Mas­si­mo Mod­one­si, “Rev­olu­ciones pasi­vas en Améri­ca Lati­na,” in El Esta­do en Améri­ca Lati­na: Con­tin­u­adades y Rup­turas (Buenos Aires: CLACSO, 2012), 143. 

  25. Luis Tapia, El Esta­do de Dere­cho como Tiranía, La Paz: CIDES, 2011), 119, my trans­la­tion. 

  26. Ibid., 115. 

  27. Emir Sader, “¿Por qué Evo?,” La Jor­nada, Decem­ber 24, 2015. 

  28. Car­los Arze Var­gas and Javier Gómez, “Bolivia: ¿El ‘Pro­ce­so de Cam­bio’ nos Con­duce al Vivir Bien?,”in Prome­sas en su laber­in­to, eds. Car­los Arze Var­gas, Javier Gómez, Pablo Ospina, and Vic­tor Alvarez (Buenos Aires: CLACSO, 2013), 114. 

  29. Ste­fanoni, “Evo, el refer­én­dum y su ‘re-re-reelec­ción.’” 

  30. Jef­frey R. Web­ber “Rev­o­lu­tion again­st ‘Pro­gress’: Neo-Extrac­tivism, the Com­pen­sato­ry State, and the TIPNIS Con­flict in Bolivia,” in Cri­sis and Con­tra­dic­tion: Marx­ist Per­spec­tives on Lat­in Amer­i­ca in the Glob­al Polit­i­cal Econ­o­my (Lon­don: Brill, 2014), 303. 

  31. Web­ber, op. cit. (2015), 4. 

  32. Brito and Ampuero, “El Ref­er­en­do Con­sti­tu­cional y la reelec­ción pres­i­den­cial.” 

  33. Jorge Viaña, “Esta­do pluri­na­cional y nue­va fase del pro­ce­so boli­viano,” in El Esta­do en Améri­ca Lati­na: Con­tin­u­adades y Rup­turas, ed. Mabel Thwait­es Rey (Buenos Aires: CLACSO, 2007), 391. 

  34. Fer­nan­do Gar­cés “The Domes­ti­ca­tion of Indige­nous Auton­o­my in Bolivia: From the Pact of Uni­ty to the New Con­sti­tu­tion,” in Remap­ping Bolivia: Resources, Ter­ri­to­ry and Indi­gene­ity in a Pluri­na­tion­al State, eds. Nicole Fab­ri­cant and Bret Gustafson (San­ta Fe: School for Advanced Research Press, 2011), 51. 

  35. Viaña, “Esta­do pluri­na­cional,” 387. My trans­la­tion and my empha­sis. 

  36. Brito and Ampuero, “El Ref­er­en­do Con­sti­tu­cional y la reelec­ción pres­i­den­cial.” 

Author of the article

is a PhD candidate in the school of Politics and IR at Queen Mary University of London. He is currently living in La Paz, Bolivia doing his PhD fieldwork. His research interests are critical political economy, the state, and gender.