A New Constitution for Bolivia: the History and Structure of the Constitutional Assembly


Source: Andean Information Network, originally published on June 28, 2006

          On March 6, 2006 the Bolivian Congress passed legislation convoking a constitutional assembly. As a result on July 2, 2006 Bolivians will vote for 255 representatives to write a new constitution and determine whether their departments (the equivalent of states) will have greater autonomy.  The demand for a new constitution is a result of longstanding popular pressure, initially voiced by the nation’s long-excluded indigenous people’s and incorporated into the agendas of four consecutive administrations (Sanchez de Lozada, Mesa, Rodriguez and Morales).

          Although some U.S. officials have expressed concern that the Morales government has "demonstrated inclinations to consolidate executive power and promote potentially anti-democratic reforms through the Constituent Assembly and other means," [i] the structure and organization of the assembly has consistently followed the stipulations of Bolivian law and the organizing precepts of Bolivian representative democracy.  Since 2004 Bolivian presidents and legislatures have approved a legal framework and timeline for the assembly, in compliance with the stipulations of the country’s existing constitution.  The law convoking the assembly, approved by the Bolivian legislature in March 2006, bases the election of delegates on the established  democratic electoral  system, allowing political parties, established citizens’ and indigenous groups to run.

          The legislation includes guarantees for transparent procedures, independence of delegates, and the participation of parties and groups that do not obtain a majority vote.   The resulting constitutional draft must be approved by a majority of Bolivian voters in national referendum. Bolivian voters will elect delegates to the assembly from twenty-five different political parties, citizen’s groups and indigenous peoples’ organizations, reflecting the vast political diversity in the nation.  

 Within this context, it is crucial that the U.S. refrain from pessimistic predictions and criticisms of the Constitutional Assembly and respect the Bolivian peoples’ right to self determination and the results of its democratic processes.

Grassroots Democracy: The Demand for a New Constitution

          During the last 15 years there has been a demand for a constitutional assembly in virtually every Andean country. Colombia (1991), Peru (1993), Ecuador (1998), and Venezuela (1999) have all wrote and approved new constitutions. Likewise, the current demand for a constitutional assembly in Bolivia is not a recent development. Yet, unlike in Peru and Venezuela where new constitutions resulted mostly from the influence of a strong political leader (Alberto Fujimori in Peru and Hugo Chavez in Venezuela), in Bolivia the longstanding demand emerged from grassroots movements and thus has widespread national support.  

The roots for the Bolivian demand for a new constitution go back to 1990 in the eastern part of Bolivia where indigenous groups from this region marched for "Land and Territory." They called for a constitutional assembly because they were consistently excluded from the decisions made by the political elite far off in La Paz which affected their communities and the land that they had called home for centuries. They sought greater participation in the political decisions regarding the use and distribution of land and natural resources, the allocation of state resources, and national development policies. Demands for a constitutional assembly grew throughout the 1990’s and into the current decade, especially among the indigenous majority who "are aware that [the constitutional assembly] is the unique and ultimate democratic space that exists to establish the parameters for an intercultural Bolivia."[ii] At the root of the demand for a new constitution is "the recognition and participation in the political and cultural life of the country" of the indigenous majority who have for centuries been excluded.[iii] 

Governments Out of Touch With the People 

Beginning in 1990, unpopular political decisions and the emergence of well-organized social movements that represent diverse Bolivians’ aspirations exposed and challenged a political establishment unresponsive to the needs of the average Bolivian.  As a result, popular demand for constitutional change to include all Bolivians in the political and cultural life of the country took root.  A constitutional assembly was a key demand in broad social protests that dramatically shaped the Bolivian political landscape:  

·        Cochabamba "Water Wars" in 2001 in which citizens took to the streets to protest huge increases in water rates after the government privatization of the city’s water system; 

·        In 2000 and 2001 poor farmers and indigenous groups included the constitutional assembly in their demands at  protests throughout the country;

·        In October 2003 as a protest against the government’s hydrocarbons policy shut down the country down, Security forces killed sixty civilians.  Protestors broadened their demands to include the resignation of Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada and a constitutional assembly. 

In an effort to address the mounting popular support for a constitutional assembly, four administrations incorporated the demand into their agendas and two congresses passed legislation to enact it:  

· President Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada agreed to hold a constitutional assembly the day before his October 17, 2003 resignation;

· His successor, Carlos Mesa revealed his strong support for a constitutional assembly and, put it formally on the national agenda. Later he created the Coordination Unit for the Constitutional Assembly;

·        In February 2004 the Bolivian Congress included the constitutional assembly in its constitutional reforms, along with criteria that expanded participation in elections to citizens’ groups and indigenous peoples;

·        In November 2005 interim President Eduardo Rodriguez set the date for elections of representatives to the assembly for July 2, 2006, and appointed a multidisciplinary, multiethnic council to oversee its planning and execution;

·        On December 18, 2005 the nation elected Evo Morales with over 53% of the vote, and granted his MAS (Movement Towards Socialism) party the majority in the nation’s congress.  The constitutional assembly is a central part of his platform;

·        On March 6, 2003 the Bolivian Congress passed the Law Convoking the Constitutional Assembly, meeting the current constitutional requirement of 2/3 majority vote.


The Law Convoking the Constitutional Assembly 

The Law Convoking the Constitutional Assembly is a result of a negotiated process between the political parties in the Bolivian Congress and the executive branch. The law incorporates guarantees of transparency in assembly proceedings and that no single party can monopolize representation.  It also impedes government intervention in the process, and requires that Bolivian voters ratify the results.  The legislation: 

·        sets the date for election of assembly representatives for July 2, 2006, and the terms and conditions for candidature;

·        defines the tasks of the assembly and gives the body full and unlimited authority to write a new constitution;

·        explicitly prohibits the executive, legislative, and judicial branches from having any power over the assembly delegates;

·        states that the assembly will be convoked on August 6, 2006 in Sucre, the constitutional capital of Bolivia;

·        stipulates transparency– that all proceedings and debate of the Assembly be public;

·        sets the duration of assembly from a minimum of 6 months to a maximum of one year;[iv]

·        Requires that at least 51 percent of Bolivian voters ratify new constitution in a national referendum in order for it to take effect.[v] If voters reject the draft, the country’s existing constitution will remain in effect;

·        Candidates for the constitutional assembly will come from the political parties registered with the National Electoral Court. In addition, citizens’ and indigenous groups were invited to put forth candidates if they were able to meet the criteria set forth in the 2004 electoral law by April 2, 2006;

·        Throughout the country there are 25 different political fronts and indigenous groups participating in the July 2nd elections;

·         Bolivian voters will elect a total of 255 representatives;

·        Citizens in each of the 70 voting districts will elect three delegates. The party that receives the most votes will send two representatives from that district and the second place party sends 1 representative.  This procedure guarantees that no political party can gain a majority in the assembly;[vi] 

·        Five representatives from each of the nine departments will be elected (45 departmental representatives). The political party or group that receives the most votes sends 2 departmental representatives to the assembly. The second, third and fourth place party or group will send one departmental representative each.  As a result, at least four parties or citizen groups with greater popular support will be represented as delegates in each department if they obtain at least five percent of the vote;[vii]

·        The parties or groups that win 2 or more seats per district or department in the assembly must send one woman and one man. A minimum of 30 percent of the delegates must be women.


Assembly and Regional Autonomy Referendum Incorporate Limits on Executive Privilege 

Morales’s MAS coalition came to power with an unprecedented mandate, winning 53 percent of the vote.  The Morales administration has approval ratings of over 75 percent, after the implementation of domestically popular initiatives such as hydrocarbons nationalization and drastic salary cuts for high level administration officials. As a result, MAS is expected to fare well in the upcoming assembly elections.  Although U.S officials and Bolivian opposition parties have accused the incumbent MAS party of attempting to "consolidate executive power and promote potentially anti-democratic reforms through the Constituent Assembly,"[viii] this widespread popular support does not provide the means to monopolize representation.  The terms of the law convoking the assembly, passed with unanimous MAS support in congress, include mechanisms specifically designed to ensure that no single party obtain the 2/3 majority in the assembly necessary to ratify constitutional changes.[ix]  This structure promotes consensus-building, negotiation and alliances between delegates of distinct affiliations in an effort to prevent any one party from dominating the deliberations and voting. 

The referendum on regional autonomy on the same day provides Bolivian voters with the option to limit the Bolivian executive’s power by granting greater authority to departmental governments through yet unspecified decentralization measures.  Approval of the referendum would also permit voters to continue to directly elect departmental governments, which occurred for the first time in the 2005 elections.  The constitutional assembly would then create a structure to grant these departments enhanced power to determine regional policy, and to distribute funds and income from natural resources according to local priorities.  Assembly delegates will be legally bound to grant these still largely undefined powers in the departments where a majority of voters approve the autonomy issue.[x]  Although the autonomy issue has been aggressively promoted by economic elites in the Santa Cruz and other eastern departments, and has the support of most departmental prefects, the outcome of the referendum is unpredictable.   Although the MAS party opposes the initiative and opposition parties largely support it, the potential impact of the referendum’s ratification remains unclear. 

Constitutional Assembly Structure Gets Mixed Reviews 

Within Bolivia, reactions to the constitutional assembly elections vary. Some members of social groups and indigenous populations that initially called for the Assembly feel that the MAS platform adequately represents their views and will vote for that party.  Assembly elections provide an opportunity for discredited traditional parties and politicians to attempt to regain legitimacy and public support.  Other citizens support diverse candidates and movements represented in the elections or express indifference about the possible impact of a new constitution. Some grassroots and indigenous groups vociferously protest the assembly structure, based on the traditional electoral system, which consistently excluded them in the past. They fear that Assembly delegates will not adequately represent the myriad of cultures and special interests in Bolivian society, and that the resulting document will fall far short of the profound, systemic changes they advocate. Some analysts complain that the relatively short time period, set by the electoral court to register new citizens’ groups and indigenous organizations, impeded greater diversity in the electoral process.  In addition, they advocated a longer and more intense campaign to educate the Bolivian public about the significance and mechanisms used to enact constitutional reforms.  These diverse reactions to the June 2 elections reflect continued diversity and active political debate within Bolivia. 


Although USAID director Adolfo Franco cautions that, "the upcoming Constituent Assembly, which is scheduled to begin in August of this year, will test the strength and robustness of the country’s democratic practices,"[xi] the process to develop and convoke the Assembly is itself evidence of a sustained, strong and robust democratic exercise spanning over a decade.  The power to choose the authors of Bolivia’s new constitution and determine greater regional autonomy is in the hands of the nation’s people.  The creation of a truly flexible and enduring democratic document, representing and protecting the rights of all citizens, will depend on the ability of these elected representatives to creatively reach consensus and productive compromise that supersede political affiliations. Any process of profound democratic change faces significant and complex challenges. The Bolivian people and civil society organizations have the capacity to hold their elected representatives accountable in democratic processes, and have shown repeatedly that they will not tolerate undemocratic impositions.  

 It is crucial that the U.S. refrain from pessimistic predictions and criticisms of the Constitutional Assembly and respect the Bolivian peoples’ right to self determination and the results of its democratic processes.

Kathryn Ledebur is the Director of the Andean Information Network (AIN) in Cochabamba, Bolivia.

Evan Cuthbert is a researcher at AIN.

AIN research assistant Wes Enzinna also contributed to this report.


[i]Democracy in Latin America:  Successes, Challenges and the Future." Testimony of Adolfo A. Franco, Assistant Administrator of the Bureau for Latin America and the Caribbean for the United States Agency for International Development, before the Committee on International Relations of the U.S. House of Representatives, 21 June 2006.

 [ii] Quispe, Jubenal. Asamblea Constituyente/Referedum Autonómico. 2006. p. 11.

 [iii] Quispe, Jubenal. Andean Information Network Interview. 13 June 2006.

 [iv] Ley especial de Convocatoria a la Asamblea Constituyente.. El Honorable Congreso de Nacional de Bolivia. 6 March 2006. Article 24. http://www.cne.org.bo/centro_doc/


 [v] Ibid.

 [vi] Ibid. Article 14, Clause 1.

 [vii] Ibid. Article 14, Clause 2.

 [viii] Democracy in Latin America:  Successes, Challenges and the Future." Testimony of Adolfo A. Franco, Assistant Administrator of the Bureau for Latin America and the Caribbean for the United States Agency for International Development, before the Committee on International Relations of the U.S. House of Representatives, 21 June 2006.

 [ix] Even if MAS were majority in all 70 districts and in all nine departments (a feat that is hardly expected) the maximum representation that one party can receive is 158 — 22 votes short of the required 2/3 majority (or 180 votes) needed to ratify a proposed article of the new constitution.

 [x] The referendum asks Bolivians to approve or reject the following initiative:  "Within the framework of national unity, are you in favor of giving the Constitutional Assembly the legally-binding mandate to establish departmental autonomy regulations to be applied immediately after the ratification of the new constitution in the departments where this referendum is approved by a majority, in a way that its authorities will be directly elected by citizens and would receive from the national government executive capacities, legal and administrative powers, and economic resources stipulated by the constitution and laws?" LEY DE CONVOCATORIA A REFERÉNDUM NACIONAL VINCULANTE A LA ASAMBLEA CONSTITUYENE PARA LAS AUTONOMIASDEPARTAMENTALES. Ley 3365. . El Honorable Congreso de Nacional de Bolivia.  6 March 2006.

[xi] Democracy in Latin America:  Successes, Challenges and the Future." Testimony of Adolfo A. Franco, Assistant Administrator of the Bureau for Latin America and the Caribbean for the United States Agency for International Development, before the Committee on International Relations of the U.S. House of Representatives, 21 June 2006.


For further information or to remove your name from the Andean Information Listserve, write to kledebur@ain-bolivia.org Our website: www.ain-bolivia.org contains additional information on continued impunity in Bolivia.