Bolivia: Popular offensive in lead-up to vote

Dandelion Salad

Posted with permission from Green Left Weekly

by Federico Fuentes
Green Left Weekly
2 August 2008

With the August 10 recall referendum on Bolivian President Evo Morales and eight out of nine prefects (governors) approaching, the Movement Towards Socialism (MAS) government, together with the social movements, has launched an offensive against attempts by the right-wing opposition to prevent the electoral process going ahead.

This offensive has included laying charges of sedition against Ruben Costas, the right-wing prefect of Santa Cruz, heartland of the opposition to MAS, for organising an illegal referendum on autonomy on May 4. There are also charges of perversion of justice against Silvia Salame, who is the only current member in the Constitutional Tribunal due to a lack of consensus in parliament in naming replacements for the magistrates who resigned last year.

Last week, Salame decreed the law that convoked the referendums unconstitutional. The government rejected this announcement, arguing that the legally required quorum to make that decision had not been reached.

On July 30, after five hours of discussion with eight of the nine departmental electoral courts (CDE), the National Electoral Court (CNE) announced that consensus had been reached on moving ahead with the referendums on the previously set date.

Opposition rejects referendums

Prior to the meeting, the four departmental electoral courts of the eastern “half moon” — the resource-rich departments (states) of Santa Cruz, Beni, Pando and Tarija that have been the spearhead of the opposition to the MAS government — announced their opposition to the referendums.

The Santa Cruz CDE did not participate in the meeting, asking that it be delayed for 48 hours. The CNE announced that if Santa Cruz was unwilling to going ahead with the referendum “the process of recall referendums would be halted”.

The president of the CNE, Jose Luis Exeni, warned that if this was to occur, the Santa Cruz CDE would have to carry the burden of the approximately US$875,000 that it would cost to hold the recall referendums.

Disagreements however emerged over the percentage of votes necessary to revoke the mandate of the president and the prefects, with some asking for the law to be revised.

Originally, the revocation of a prefect or the president was to be based on surpassing the percentage of votes obtained in the 2005 national elections. While to revoke Morales would require a higher result that 53.7% of the votes cast, the majority of prefects were elected with less than 50% of the vote.

In the case of the La Paz prefect Jose Luis Paredes, a mere 38% vote in favour of his recall would revoke his mandate.

However, the CNE has since ruled that at least 50% of votes in favour of recall will be required in all referendums, which the government has accepted.

Right-wing manoeuvres

The day before the meeting, speaking at a rally in the coca growing region of the Chapare, Morales asked the CDEs and their spokespeople to respect the law. “Be careful, otherwise the people will rise up against these entities because they are not respecting democracy, the laws or the sovereign will of the people”, he assured.

At another rally that same day, this time in Patacamaya, 109 kilometres from La Paz, Morales warned that right-wing forces would continue to manoeuvre to ensure that the referendums did not go ahead.

Vice-President Alvaro Garcia Linera announced on July 31 that the government was preparing itself to lay charges against any CDE spokespeople who violated the law.

In Tarija, MAS leader Luis Alfaro went further, warning that the CDEs had to ensure that the referendums go ahead: “If there are no ballot boxes, there are arms.”

Fidel Surco, leader of the Confederation of Colonisers (an organisation of campesinos predominantly from the east), announced that mobilisations were being organised across the country in defence of the referendums.

“If we are not heard”, said Edgar Patana, leader of the Regional Workers Central of El Alto, “we will have to mobilise in the different departments. As citizens of El Alto, we are in a state of emergency and we do not rule out mobilising … to show that either they respect the people or the departmental courts have to go.”

The residents of the militant indigenous Aymara city of El Alto have been at the forefront of massive mobilisations in recent years that have overthrown two neoliberal presidents.

Support for Evo

Polls suggest that Morales’ support in El Alto is around 80-90%.

According to a poll of 1600 adult Bolivians in the cities of La Paz, El Alto, Santa Cruz and Cochabamba, conducted over July 11-15 by Captura Consulting SRL, 49% of respondents answered positively to the question “How would you vote in the referendum on the tenure of Bolivian president Evo Morales?”

Only 18% said they would vote against Morales, while 33% responded “Not sure”.

Taking into consideration that the key base of the MAS are the rural indigenous peasant populations, the actual figure of support for Morales at a national level is almost certainly higher.

It is these figures that have caused panic among the divided opposition. While the initiative for the recall referendums was initially introduced into parliament by MAS last December, it was first blocked by the right-wing controlled opposition, only to then be approved in May.

This move was immediately rejected by the pro-autonomy prefects of the opposition departments in the east — who 10 days later switched positions and announced they would participate in the referendums, only to then see members of opposition parties question the legality of the law in the Constitutional Tribunal.

Much of this division can be explained by the leadership contest between the pro-autonomy prefects in the half moon and the main opposition party, Podemos.

Now, the opposition is frantically trying to stop the referendums going ahead as a number of right-wing prefects risk losing their positions.

Social conflicts

Meanwhile, social conflicts have increased over the last week.

On July 30, some few hundred members of Bolivian Workers Central (COB), predominately miners, protesting in favour of the COB’s proposed pension law, caused havoc in the streets of La Paz and occupied by force the Palace of Communications, where five economic ministries function as well as the Bolivian Mail Company (Ecobol). Other COB members blockaded the cities of Sucre and Potosi.

Other sectors, including the federation of disabled people demanding a US$375-a-week payment, the confederation of bus drivers in favour of an increase in bus fares, and civic organisations in the gas rich area of Camiri demanding the refoundation of the state gas company, YPFB, and an increase in the price of gas exported to Brazil and Argentina, have also announced further protests in the lead-up to August 10.

The National Democratic Council, which unites the opposition prefects of the half moon, Cochabamba and Chuquisaca, have also announced they will initiate a hunger strike on August 4 against the government’s decision to use part of the funds generated by its hydrocarbons tax to fund a universal pension for those aged over 60.

Minister of government, Alfredo Rada, argued that there existed right-wing interests behind the round of mobilisations. Morales stated that the government had never opposed the modification of the pension law, and even supported some of the demands of the COB such as the elimination of the Administrators of Pension Funds (AFP).

A July 20 AP dispatch reported that Morales was “seeking to nationalize two of his country’s biggest private pension funds, which manage assets worth more than $3 billion”.

Morales add that “it was unfortunate that some, very few, worker comrades from some sectors, in this conjuncture seem to be the best instrument of the misnamed half moon … instead of mobilising everywhere, they should be campaigning to put an end to the neoliberals and traitors to the homeland”.

Patana stated that while the government had to solve the legitimate problems raised by the protests, agreement had to be reached “in order to avoid convulsions”.

[Federico Fuentes is the editor of]

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