Page last updated at 00:19 GMT, Saturday, 9 August 2008 01:19 UK

Divided Bolivia set for referendum

By James Painter
BBC Latin America analyst

Bolivia's President, Evo Morales, and eight of the country's elected regional governors, some of whom are his fiercest political enemies, are about to put their mandates on the line.

A man walks past a wall in La Paz with pro-Morales posters and signs
Sunday's vote is likely to leave Bolivia as divided as ever

On Sunday, Bolivians will vote in a recall referendum that will decide whether Mr Morales and the governors should stay in office.

But the referendum has already been shrouded in confusion over what percentage of the votes the governors need to survive in office, which could mean the results are contested.

There is also considerable doubt whether the referendum will help to reduce the acute social and geographical polarisation in Bolivia and make the country more governable.

Last May, President Morales agreed to the recall referendum in part because he believed he could use it to regain the political momentum against his opponents in the gas-rich eastern departments.

In the last three months, the opposition have been making the running.

In the departments of Santa Cruz, Beni and Tarija, significant majorities voted in support of more autonomy from the central government over a wide range of issues.

The government dismissed the referendums as illegal and blamed the governors for trying to break up the country.


The rules for Sunday's vote are complicated and still in doubt:

  • President Morales and Vice-president Alvaro Garcia Linera will be voted out of office if more than 53.7% of the voters support their removal - that was their share of the vote in the 2005 elections
  • After an agreement on 31 July between the National Electoral Council (CNE) and most of the departmental courts, the regional governors will lose office if more than 50% of voters choose to have them removed
  • Previously, they would have lost if they failed to secure the same number of votes they achieved in the 2005 elections plus one. The new agreement in effect raised the barrier for rejection.

But the results could still be questioned.

Mr Morales has said he is not sure if the CNE can amend the rules; the regional governor of Cochabamba, Manfredo Reyes, has refused to accept the constitutional basis for the referendum; and two of the country's nine departmental courts (Santa Cruz and Oruro) did not sign up to the agreement.

At the root of the conflict is President Morales's desire to get a new constitution approved.

Pro-autonomy graffiti in Tarija
Several departments have been pushing hard for autonomy

This would give a greater share of Bolivia's gas wealth to the poorer western departments, allocate more land to the country's indigenous majority and allow Mr Morales to stand for re-election. The eastern departments, led by Santa Cruz, are strongly opposed.

One highly possible scenario is that both President Morales and the majority of the regional governors opposed to him are confirmed in office.

Mr Morales and his party, the Movement to Socialism, are still popular with the poor majority.

The government has used increased gas revenues to boost public spending on higher pensions, a higher minimum wage, and a cash transfer scheme by which free school meals and cash payments are given to mothers who ensure their children go to school.

However, it is likely that most of the regional governors like Ruben Costas of Santa Cruz will also be confirmed in office.

Opinion polls tend to show the government doing well in the western, highland provinces, but the governors doing well in the eastern departments.

'Agree to disagree'

Many Bolivia observers seriously doubt that Sunday's referendum will provide a way out of the political polarisation.

Evo Morales addresses a rally on 2 August
Evo Morales is Bolivia's first indigenous president

If Mr Morales gets significantly more votes than he achieved in 2005, he will feel emboldened to press ahead with another referendum - this time on the constitution.

But the opposition leaders will claim they too have a mandate to oppose it if they are confirmed in their posts and they could harden their intransigence.

Is there any way out of the impasse? Two recent reports by international think tanks suggest compromise has to be shown by both sides as the only way forward.

The International Crisis Group argued in a June briefing that it was "essential to move away from 'duelling referendums' aimed at subduing the other side'. Rather, they said basic consensus was needed around several issues:

  • the balance between departmental autonomy and indigenous autonomies in the new constitution
  • the distribution of gas revenues
  • the status of the city of Sucre as the constitutional capital (but not the seat of government).

Likewise, a paper published in July by the Washington-based Inter-American Dialogue, aptly called "Bolivia's long and winding road", came to similar conclusions around the need for consensus.

It suggests the first step should be an agreement to impartial appointments in the Constitutional Tribunal and National Electoral Court.

It warned that neither side can successfully impose their political vision on the other, and argued that the need for a mentality of "agreeing to disagree" was more urgent than ever.

Morales calls for Bolivian unity
07 Aug 08 |  Americas
Bolivia protests prevent summit
05 Aug 08 |  Americas
Morales sets Bolivia recall date
12 May 08 |  Americas
Setback to Bolivian reform plan
08 Mar 08 |  Americas
Battle for Bolivia's heart
08 Sep 07 |  From Our Own Correspondent
Country profile: Bolivia
22 Apr 08 |  Country profiles

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