Bolivia: Historic vote confirms will for change

August 16, 2008

With 99% of votes counted, Bolivia's first indigenous president won a crushing 67.43% vote in the August 10 recall referendum.

Surpassing the 53.7% he received in the 2005 national elections (until August 10 the highest vote recorded by a presidential candidate in Bolivia's history) the result confirmed the broad support for Morales's Movement Towards Socialism (MAS) government's project for wide-ranging social change.

Referendums on whether to ratify or recall the president, vice-president and eight of the nine departmental prefects (governors) were held as an attempt to break the deadlock caused by opposition to the process of change by the right-wing oligarchy whose base of support lies in the Bolivia's resource-rich and predominantly white eastern region.

Relationship of forces

The vote not only ratified Morales and Vice-President Alvaro Garcia Linera in their posts, it also resulted in the mandates of two opposition prefects being revoked (Jose Paredes in La Paz and Manfred Villa Reyes in Cochabamba). Their positions will undoubtedly be filled by prefects aligned with the government in the upcoming elections, increasing the number of MAS prefects from two to four.

The vote has confirmed that Morales has maintained large support among the middle classes, as well as growing class struggle in the east — where Morales' vote dramatically increased, rejecting the concept of a government whose authority would be limited to the west.

At the same time, however, majority support for the project of "autonomy" pushed by the oligarchy in the "half moon" — the four eastern departments of Santa Cruz, Beni, Pando and Tariga — was ratified with the victory for the pro-autonomy prefects.

Coming out of the referendums, a new political configuration has emerged, which many hope will open up space for an agreement between the competing social blocs on integrating the new constitution drafted by the constituent assembly (by pro-government delegates after right-wing delegates boycotted assembly sessions) with the autonomy statutes proposed by the eastern prefects.

The challenge now is for the government to use this powerful electoral majority to overcome what many commentators have referred to as a "catastrophic deadlock" and open the path towards the "new Bolivia" being fought for by the indigenous majority and other oppressed sectors — and violently opposed by the oligarchy.

When the initiative for the recall referendums came from Morales in December as a way to break this deadlock, the main opposition party, Podemos, refused to approve it — using its Senate majority to stall the project.

However five months later, as the eastern prefects took the initiative through a wave of autonomy referendums, Podemos moved to regain leadership of the opposition by voting for the recall referendums.

Behind the push for autonomy is a move by the large landowners and gas transnationals to shield the natural resources and agribusiness interests in the east from the government's nationalisation and land reform projects.

As the Morales government has advanced in its project to recuperate state control over natural resources, including the May 1, 2006 nationalisation of Bolivia's gas reserves, the elites located in the east have worked to construct a regional pro-autonomy movement. This aims to give the prefects legislative power over issues such as taxation, natural resources, land distribution and trade agreements.

Not only do they hope to take decision-making power over these questions out of the hands of the central government, they aim to undermine Morales' project and support base in order to pave the way for his removal — either at the ballot box or by violent means.

With the new draft constitution enshrining state control over natural resources, as well as dramatically expanding the rights of indigenous people, the oligarchy is fighting tooth and nail to defend its interests against a national movement driven by the indigenous peoples.

The right-wing's confidence was boosted in the aftermath of unconstitutional referendums organised in the half moon over June and July, agianst the opposition of the central government, on the question of autonomy. The half moon authorities announced massive victories in votes marred by violence and high abstention rates.

The pro-autonomy prefects shifted from their initial rejection of the recall referendums and agreed to participate, as their regional project seemed to be expanding with the victory of an opposition candidate in the elections for prefect of Chuquisaca.

Violent campaign

The former prefect, aligned with MAS, is currently in exile in Peru following a wave of racist attacks and violent protests against the constituent assembly, held in Chuquisaca's capital of Sucre.

Yet as August 10 approached and polls predicted a large victory for Morales, most of the media began to comment on the lack of any serious political campaign by the opposition for an anti-Morales vote.

Instead, the week leading up to the vote saw an intensification of the right-wing's violent and racist campaign.

This involved mobilising fascist youth to attack indigenous people in the cities, blockading airports to stop Morales campaigning in the east — including preventing a scheduled meeting with the presidents of Venezuela and Argentina that had to be postponed as small groups of thugs wearing balaclavas waited menacingly at the airport for their arrival — and an attempted assassination of the minister of the presidency.

The mayor of Santa Cruz even called on the military to overthrow Morales because he was "useless."

On the day of the vote, however, only isolated incidents occurred. While the vote affirmed strong support for the half moon prefects, it also confirmed the emergence of "the other Santa Cruz" — forces in the opposition's heartland willing to oppose the project of the elites.

In Santa Cruz, Ruben Costas was ratified as prefect with 66.4% of the vote, while Ernesto Suarez in Beni received 64.25%, Mario Cossio in Tarija 58.06% and Leopoldo Suarez in Pando 56.21%.

At the same time, Morales scored 52% in Pando, just under 50% in Tarija and jumped from less than 20% to 43.7% in Beni. He also received the not unimportant figure of 40% support in Santa Cruz.

Only in Chuquisaca was Morales' vote less than in 2005, although it was still a solid 53.8%.

While it was still a long way from the remarkable results of 80% support in the departments of La Paz, Oruro and Potosi, 70% in Cochabamba and the 90% achieved almost across the board in the rural electorates, the results in the east represent an important advance for the government.


Speaking from the balcony of the presidential palace in front of thousands of supporters, Morales declared that the vote was a mandate "to continue advancing in the recuperation of natural resources, in the recuperation and nationalisation of companies".

The vote was also a mandate to unite all Bolivians, east and west, rich and poor, stated Morales — a mandate that would be applied at all the different levels, sectors and regions of the country.

"I call on all the prefects to work for the unity of Bolivians and to work respecting Bolivian norms … The people want the prefects to be part of the nationalisation of other natural resources", Morales proclaimed.

Morales called a meeting of all prefects to discuss how to unite autonomy statutes into the new constitution.

The conciliatory tone of Morales' speech, which was well received by most Bolivians, contrasted sharply with the confrontational stance of the prefects of the east.

Costas declared that the vote had ratified a de facto autonomy and a rejection of the "racist" (read: indigenous) constitution that the "monkey" (Morales) wants to impose through "state terrorism", as crowds gathered in the centre of Santa Cruz to celebrate Morales "revocation" in this region — chanting that "Evo will never set foot in Santa Cruz again".

Toning down their rhetoric in the following days, the other prefects announced they had agreed to come to the negotiating table and discuss with Morales a way to combine the two projects.

Meeting on August 14, the government proposed attempting to make the new constitution and autonomy statutes compatible, to discuss the question of the "direct tax on hydrocarbons" (the opposition, despite massive windfalls from the tax following the gas nationalisation, has rejected government attempts to use part of this tax to fund the new pension scheme) and reaching agreement on the designation of magistrates for the constitutional tribunal and the national electoral court.

Immediately afterwards, the prefects from the half moon flew to Santa Cruz where they announced their rejection of the government's proposal and called for a "civic stoppage" on August 19. Without a legal basis, Costa announced plans for elections to a legislative assembly in "the autonomous department of Santa Cruz" for January 25 next year.

Meanwhile the violent campaign in the east has continued. On August 13, six youths threw 10 molotov cocktails into the headquarters of the Centre for Legal Studies and Social Investigation (Cejis), which provides legal advice to indigenous and peasant organisations and where some of Morales cabinet members come from.

"I feel that the prefects only want money and do not want to touch the political question", said Morales after the meeting. "If we interpret the sentiment expressed through the recall referendums, the Bolivian people want profound changes in the structural and especially in the political sphere. That is why I have come to the conclusion that the Bolivian people want autonomy and a new constitution."

Vice-minister for decentralisation, Fabian Yaksic, added that the government would propose another referendum "where the people would settle the question as to whether the autonomy proposed in the new constitution is the one that most benefits the country, or if the autonomy proposal reflected in the regional statutes [promoted by the half moon authorities] does".

Other, more hard-line voices from the radical sectors of MAS are calling for tough measures against those forces in the east that continue to violate the law. During Morales victory speech, important sections of the crowd begun to chant: "Now, for sure, it's time to be heavy handed."

[Federico Fuentes is the editor of]

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