Popular mobilization since 2000 has opened up the possibility of political and social change in Bolivia, based on a political project envisioned by social movements. Their critique centers on the privatization process at the core of the political-economic model implemented in Bolivia since 1985, characterized by the structural reforms dictated by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank (WB).

Throughout the 90s, this economic structural reform package was implemented alongside a series of political reforms, principally focused on decentralization. Laws like the Popular Participation Law sought to recognize some forms of community participation in local government. In some cases, these changes made way for municipal self-governance with community interaction. However, in general they facilitated the penetration of party politics into communitarian political spheres, weakening local forms of political organization in favor of a liberal political-economic model.

It is worthwhile asking what it was that kept liberal democracy from consolidating itself as a permanent form of government in countries with as much cultural and ethnic diversity as Bolivia, especially after the opposing Marxist model suffered a global crisis.

Within the rationalist conception of liberalism, for democracy to be established as a system of peaceful negotiations that guarantee the expression of diversity, it requires a clear and practical division between the public and private spheres. As long as both spheres remained separate, liberal democracy acquired followers who identified it as the best possible form of government, built on the premise that civil society and political society pursue different ends and that the meeting point between them only arose at election time. In elections citizens voted to delegate to a representative (linked to a political party) the task of protecting their interests, thus assuming that the representative would obey his electoral mandate and mediate their interests.

But what happens when these representatives enter politics to try to establish an order that favors the demands of specific groups of society, both national and international? What happens when that order purposefully excludes the demands based on pluralism of other groups that form part of civil society—and are the majority—and that come into conflict with the first groups?

In these cases, political representation begins to lose legitimacy, mainly because traditional political parties demonstrate an inability to typify what liberalism calls the "common good" and consequently are unable to defend it in their role as mediators, connectors, and decision-makers.

At the start of 2000, it was clear in Bolivia that the traditional way of doing politics, with economic actors who according to the official version of things spurred development and economic growth (transnationals), and political actors who occupied the spheres of power (political parties), had lost its force and was almost totally worn out.

Thus the breakdown of representative democracy. Despite attempts to generate inclusive political participation through national dialogue, the political parties were unable to comprehend that their internal composition and their presence in the spheres of state power had excluded organized majority groups with a large capacity for mobilization, including peasant sectors such as the coca growers’ movement in the Chapare jungle and the peasant unions, at that time led by Felipe Quispe Huanca who was the head of the Confederated Union of Peasant Workers of Bolivia (Confederacion Sindical Unica de Trabajadores Campesinos de Bolivia-CSUTCB).

By the year 2000 it was obvious that two opposite and irreconcilable discourses existed. In the words of Oscar Olivera, one might think that democracy had been up to then "private property" whose contents and practices excluded social sectors from direct decision-making about the things that, one way or another, concerned them in everyday life.

The Strength of Social Movements

Social movements, the state’s main challengers, became stronger in the years 2000-2005, basically because their discourse linked politics to daily life, publicly displaying social dissatisfaction with the parties’ incapacity to get involved with the represented people’s vital needs.

By taking up the banner of popular identification with coca-growers’, peasants’, and urban demands, the social movements put together a list of demands and put the state to the test of whether it would comply and so restore faith in the veracity of the political representatives’ intentions and links with these movements. The priority issues on the list were the nationalization of natural resources and the convocation of a Constituent Assembly. The assembly was conceived as an instrument of structural change, permitting on the one hand the configuration of a new social contract centered in overcoming all existing forms of exclusion, and on the other hand providing the recognition of the excluded sectors as autonomous actors and subjects, equal and able to appreciate their own worth.

However, by 2003, the government of Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada still did not give any positive sign that the state would add the social movements’ list to the governmental agenda. The attempt to implement a salary tax in February that year made the political climate tense once more. By October the social sectors confirmed their decision not to attend a national meeting, and the decision was communicated by Evo Morales. The decision spelled a rejection of governmental policy that refused to take up the issues of property or increasing hydrocarbon taxes from 18% to 50%. Once more, the social movements’ unifying argument was centered in the defense of natural resources and the distribution of their benefits to the Bolivian people.

In 2005, the postulation of someone from these movements to lead the country was imminent. In that year’s elections, Morales took power after winning 54% of the vote. However, the MAS (Movement toward Socialism) victory over other organizations that were also part of the politicization process is explained mainly because, as Jorge Komadina and Celine Geffroy have shown, the MAS leaders knew how to manage three essential aspects of the campaign: political strategy, organization, and identity.

As a result, in Bolivia today we see resistance to the colonial legacy of dominant structures and the architecture of inequality that was cemented by the economic privatizing model and the parties’ monopoly of politics. The resistance has been based on collective action through several cycles of mobilization.

Constituent Assembly and Departmental Autonomy Statutes

On March 6, 2006 Law 3365 was passed, convoking the Constituent Assembly. At the same time, a referendum for departmental autonomy was called. This artificial linking was an attempt to resolve the deep conflict between two radically opposed political projects.

The national government portrays both convocations as the result of two social dynamics, propelled by two kinds of struggle. The Constituent Assembly is portrayed as a product of the social demands born during the cycles of social mobilization. The project of provincial autonomy is portrayed as the product of a long struggle against centralism in the different regions of the country. The handling these two issues as though they were comparable reveals one fundamental fact: that the economically powerful groups who traditionally governed the country, now settled in regional, provincial positions of power, have turned the struggle against "centralism" into an expression of their resistance to the loss of privileges. The government, far from offering its own analysis of the decentralization issue, has accepted the right’s discourse as valid. According to the right, the centralist structure of the Bolivian state is fundamental to understanding exclusionary socio-economic structures in the country; this discourse dodges the issues of colonialism and class.

The right’s political project is built on the opposition’s provincial governments, under the banner of a supposed common struggle against centralism and for provincial autonomy. Groups that traditionally held political power now skillfully criticize the new authorities. When the so-called "centralist" state is occupied by historically excluded social sectors, the right clamors that this state conformation is no longer viable and seeks state reconfiguration, in a movement spearheaded by the regional governments. In this way, it has tried to deflect attention from the historic fact that an Indian holds the nation’s highest office.

The opposition disputes the importance of the post that Morales holds today, calling themselves "governors" (prefectos)—a post that does not exist in the country’s current legal structure. On one hand, the conservative political movement in the regions capitalizes on social discontent among the populations of these places due to a poorly implemented process of decentralization, and opposes any governmental wealth-redistribution measures. On the other hand, a general political dynamic emerges, from different areas—the Constituent Assembly, the regions, and the national government—that constantly questions the legality and legitimacy of every one of the political actors.

Today, control of the earnings from the nationalization process, decision-making about the use of natural resources, and land ownership policies are all at stake.

Since the beginning of the Constituent Assembly, the right-wing opposition has deployed a strategy of constantly blocking the possibility of deep political reform that might affect its class interests. One of the central issues thrown into the constituent debate with this aim is the issue of capital city status. Regional government officials, and civic, social, and student organizations from the provinces call for the return of legislative and executive powers from La Paz, the current seat of government, to Sucre.

This demand is significant in national political history, as it harks back to the 1899 Federal War. This confrontation took place between the elites of La Paz and Chuquisaca, with each elite identified with a political project that while they didn’t have huge programmatic differences they did represent opposing economic interests. The conservative project was based economically in silver mining and territorially in Sucre, then the national capital, and the liberal project was backed primarily by La Paz’s professional urban classes and its new tin mining industry. This was basically a face-off between elites, with temporary and orchestrated participation by indigenous sectors.

Today when the issue of the capital was introduced at the constituent forum by the right-wing opposition, with the support of civic committees of the "media luna" or Crescent (Santa Cruz, Tarija, Beni, and Pando departments, so named for their shape on the map of the country), history no longer permits the exclusion or solely orchestrated participation of indigenous and working class actors as occurred in 1899.

Those who support the process of change propelled by MAS view the issue of the capital city as nothing more than an excuse, created by the right, to put a brake on indigenous, workers’, and peasants’ struggles. The issue of changing the seat of government has put the national conflict over the reconfiguration of forces on the stage of the Constituent Assembly as if the issue of "La Paz centralism" were the central problem.

"Paradoxically, the conflict for capital status that sets two regions against each other awakes civic reactions in other departments, alongside declarations of political support for the Chuquisaca (the province where Sucre is located) cause aimed to create alliances and favor economic interests and (provincial) autonomy demands, but essentially it does not contribute to a questioning of the bases of the centralist model, given that the demand for the capital is limited to a demand to move the powers, without looking at the way in which these will be exercised" (Uriona and Mokrani: OSAL 2007).

Once again, the national government’s lack of clear political strategy and an alternative proposal to "centralism" without ignoring the centrality of the Bolivian state’s colonial formation and resultant class structures, has had favorable political consequences for the right. On one hand, MAS lost the prefecture (provincial government) of Chuquisaqa department, now in the hands of the right and headed by an indigenous ex-MAS Constituent Assembly representative. On the other hand, the Constituent Assembly itself has entered a state of near-limbo, as the proposal for the new constitutional text, approved in Oruro city, does not even have a date set for its approval or rejection in a national consultation.

The new constitution proposes the foundation of a "unitary multinational social communitarian state, free, independent, sovereign, democratic, intercultural, decentralized, and with autonomies […]" (Art. 1). As regards proposals for state structure and territorial organization, it suggests that Bolivia be organized in "[…] departments, provinces, municipalities, and native peasant indigenous territories […]" (Art. 270).

This proposal, faced with the provincial autonomies project, recognizes four types of autonomy: provincial, regional, municipal, and native peasant indigenous autonomies.

For provincial and municipal autonomy, it proposes the establishment of autonomous governments made up of an executive branch and a deliberative branch. In the case of regional autonomy, it suggests setting up regions by democratic citizen will and uniting municipalities or provinces by geographical proximity, sharing "complementary culture, languages, history, economy, and ecosystems" (Art. 281). Indigenous autonomy is defined in this proposal as "[…] the expression of the right to self-governance as an exercise in self-determination of native indigenous peoples and nations and peasant communities, whose populations share territory, culture, history, languages, and judicial, political, social, and economic organization or institutions" (Art. 290).

Here lies the attempt to bring the issue of types of autonomy governance into the national debate. This attempt originates in a reading that does not limit understanding of the issue to provincial or regional autonomy, but rather recognizes various levels of autonomy: regional, municipal, so-called native peasant indigenous. This proposal seeks to block the right’s political project, avoiding the concentration of power in provincial structures.

However, the opposition officials of Santa Cruz, Beni, Pando, Tarija, and Cochabamba refuse to debate with any other autonomy proposal and, adducing the "legitimacy" of the prefects as elected authorities, they have called for direct consultations on autonomy statutes that have been drawn up by certain civic sectors, regional businesspeople, and provincial government authorities, refusing to recognize the new constitutional text’s suggestions. These provincial autonomy statutes have the ultimate political goal of guaranteeing that decisions over public affairs that have to do with the distribution of power and wealth remain in the hands of the regional groups of power.

The Consultations

The governors and civil groups of Santa Cruz, Beni, Pando, and Tarija took upon themselves the prerogative of unilaterally defining the autonomy issue, supported by the results of the referendum on July 2, 2006. In this referendum, Bolivians went to the polls to answer the following question: "Do you agree, in the context of national unity, with giving a binding mandate to the Constituent Assembly to establish a provincial autonomy regime, applicable immediately after the passing of the new Political Constitution of the State in the Departments where this Referendum obtains a majority, in the manner that its authorities be directly elected by citizens and receive from the National State executive competencies, normative administrative attributions, and the economic-financial resources assigned to them by the new Political Constitution of the State and by Law?"

At a national level, the "No" vote won, but when counted by province, "Yes" won in the four mentioned provinces, which recently called new consultations. This time, the objective of the referendums was to approve the form in which each department would implement autonomy, by means of a single proposal, drawn up in each individual case by civic groups and governors. In this way, the previous consultation was completely disregarded, in which it was established that the autonomous regime would be applied only within the framework of and subject to approval of a new constitutional text.

The national government denies the legality of these consultations, which were possible because provincial courts shook off the National Electoral Court’s directives. The central argument of the national authorities is that although legitimate elected authorities exist in the departments, they have not yet created the departmental governments democratically, as not one of the regional directive and legislative authorities or the departmental councils has been elected by popular vote.

They also signal that, given that neither the presence of elected governors nor of legitimate departmental governments is contemplated in the current constitution, the Constituent Assembly is the only legal route for forwarding the autonomy process. It is important here to underline that the election of provincial governors happened through political accords, principally during the government of Carlos Mesa, but that the constitutional presence of elected governors is not contemplated in the still valid Political Constitution of the State, which establishes that the designation of these regional authorities is by exclusive power of the President of the Republic. Morales, immediately after taking the first seat of the nation, designated the governor elected in each department by popular vote, awarding legal validity to their mandate.

The provincial statutes make various criticisms principally of the national government’s usurpation of provincial powers, claiming that these should be immediately moved to regional decision-makers, given that they affect the strategic interests of the nation. There has not really been an open debate on the issue, as different dialogue initiatives promoted by the federal government, in which it was even suggested that the statutes could be made compatible with the new constitutional text, were systematically broken off by the opposition.

On May 4 in Santa Cruz; on June 1 in Beni and Pando; and on June 22 in Tarija, the four disputed consultations about autonomy statutes took place. The autonomy proposals have their own particularities in each case, as in each province they respond to a calculation of electoral strength and to the balance of the strategic interests at play. Yet seen generally, the autonomy projects reveal the regional elites’ projects to keep control of the strategic resources of the country and benefit their own economic class interests.

As an example, the Santa Cruz statute proposes to manage justice, the labor system, the police, lands, mineral resources, hydraulic resources, hydrocarbon resources, electromagnetism, biodiversity, forest resources, the management of state businesses, public services, the tax system, electoral system and referendum-calling, education, health, and social security—all by a provincial autonomous government.

In the consultations, social forces opposed to the provincial autonomy projects ran campaigns in some cases for a "No" vote but mostly for abstention, using the argument that the consultation was illegal. According to the figures from the provincial courts, the average abstention in the four departments was 38.7%, equivalent to 226,235 people. The two options—of abstention and of rejection—make a total of 56% of votes in Pando; 47.9% in Beni, 48.94% in Santa Cruz, and 27% in Tarija, according to figures from Bolpress, published June 22, 2008.

Provincial Resistance to National Government Policies

The disputes stirred up around the policies that the government decided to apply to the redistribution of resources generated their own two tensions. The first of these refers to the redistribution of the Direct Hydrocarbons Tax (IDH, for its initials in Spanish). It is expressed in party disputes and legislative bodies, and the two principal options are to reject or not a dialogue to negotiate positions. For the provincial authorities who oppose the government, the cutting by 30% of governors’ funds from the hydrocarbon tax to cover the cost of paying the "dignity" retirement allowance, meant postponing the completion of local development projects. The government, in contrast, argued that the cut would not put this development in danger, as a Compensation Fund had been suggested to pay for the projects being executed.

The second tension was linked to access to resources like land. Land reform is a priority policy for the government and it has taken on a violent character because it challenges the interests of hacienda owners in regions like the East of the country, who are linked to centers of provincial power like the Civic Committees and the governors. These powers impede the work of the National Institution of Agrarian Reform (INRA, for its initials in Spanish) and the Vice Ministry of Land in the areas where their latifundio estates by virtue of their size are being reverted to the state. Resistance to these reorganizations and processes include death threats, armed attacks, and roadblocks preventing the entrance of authorities to verify and oversee the size of the properties, the land reform processes, and the existence of forced labor using captive indigenous communities.

The land policy in Morales’ government, expressed in Law 3545 of Communitarian Extension of Agrarian Reform, passed in 2006, "manifests the political decision of the government to grant available Fiscal Lands exclusively in favor of indigenous and peasant communities (Supreme Decree Nº28.733); the legal disposition guarantees the granting of lands by the state and does not affect business properties." While this seeks to curb the abusive practice of land adjudication, linked to the peddling of political favors—a common practice in both de facto governments and traditional political parties in democratic periods—it does not explain in what way the estate owner himself would be affected, nor does it establish the means of intervention to revert fiscal lands, the base of grand private properties that have been fraudulently "legalized."

The Recall Referendum by Popular Mandate

The new constitutional text was approved in Oruro in November 2007. Resistance against some of the contents, especially the issue of autonomies, but also regarding Morales government plans and policies in the social, economic, and international arenas, has generated a climate of polarization that has created a confrontation between the legal and the legitimate. This is also expressed in the division of positions inside the political institutions themselves.

The calling of a general referendum to ratify or withdraw the mandate of the executive (national and departmental) authorities has turned in to a tool for clarifying by vote the constant dispute between the legal and/or the legitimate, as considered by the people. This should permit the government—who proposed the recall referendum law in December 2007—to deepen their democratic aspirations. It will be the people themselves who judge the performance of their representatives, introducing the possibility of censuring or confirming every authority. The intention is that it be the population that determines who enjoys legitimacy to continue exercising their position after legislative debates take place.

Care was taken to comply with the established legal prerequisites without leaving the institutional framework. The recall referendum needed to be authorized by Congress, and the National Electoral Court (CNE), the most highly competent institution for controlling electoral process, was charged with implementation. The opposition governors also saw the referendum as a way out of the political crisis, but parallel to this they put a process of popular consultation in motion that skipped the required legal steps (it contradicted Law 3838, which stipulates that any popular consultation is only valid if authorized by Congress), but which gleamed something of a legitimate character from its basis in the vote of the July 2006 referendum.

Part of the political opposition in the National Congress approved the law for the recall referendum, the Ley de Referéndum Revocatorio de Mandato Popular, last June 9. This provoked an internal division in the opposition, since the National Democratic Council (CONALDE), made up of the governors and civic committees of the provinces of Beni, Pando, Tarija, Santa Cruz, and Cochabamba, decided in the first instance "[…] not to submit themselves to recall referendum as convoked by national government, save that said convocation adjust itself to the framework established in the autonomy statutes" (Statement of June 23, 2008).

Nevertheless, on July 4 they changed their position and opted to submit themselves to the referendum, although they continued a campaign on several levels to impede its realization. Two types of actions stand out here: the first, confronting the electoral process itself by issuing a series of statements reporting supposed irregularities in the electoral register. The second consisted of exacerbating existing social conflict with acts like hunger strikes on the part of regional civic leaders, and putting obstacles in the way of the President of the Republic’s free movement around national territory.

In all this, the interpretation of legitimacy and legality is being debated, within the framework of a political process of transition from an old order in need of reform to a new order that is not yet consolidated. The meaning of "democratic" is debated all around.

One side of the debate is made up of traditional political elites, now part of provincial governments, who consolidate a discourse in which their interpretation of "democratic" fits in with formalist and legal notions that seek to curb the possibility of the practice of radical democracy, and defend a type of institutionalism that serves their interests, rejecting, like anti-democrats, other expressions of political participation that are beyond the current order, but must be transformed through the constituent process.