Bolivian Political Forces Negotiate Constitutional Deadlock

Assembly in Sucre

Bolivia’s Constitutional Assembly has struggled to complete its mandate, to rewrite the nation’s constitution and ‘refound’ Bolivia.

Source: Andean Information Network

Bolivia’s Constitutional Assembly has struggled to complete its mandate, to rewrite the nation’s constitution and ‘refound’ Bolivia, since its inauguration on August 6, 2006 due to a string of protests and clashes on various issues.  In early September, violent and sustained protests in Sucre over the location of Bolivia’s capital pressured the Assembly to take a one month recess until October 8.  The break was extended for two additional weeks, postponing the next full meeting of the assembly to October 22.  

During the recess, some committees have been working, but the real compromises and negotiations are taking place within the framework of the multi-party commission called the “political council.”  The council, with representatives including Assembly members and legislators from fourteen of the sixteen political parties participating in the Assembly, has been meeting with Vice President Alvaro Garcia Linera acting as its moderator.  The council’s purpose is to seek out compromises on the most contentious issues within the Assembly, including the structure of the state, autonomy and the location of the capital.

While there have been some agreements reached, the opposition’s on-again off-again participation has slowed the group’s progress.  Concerns that the council is outside the mandate of the Assembly and that it is being controlled by Morales’ Movement Towards Socialism (MAS) have also arisen.  However, calls for participation and compromise have come from all directions, showing a nation ready for an end to the standoffs and prepared to compromise.

MAS Assembly member Loyola Guzmán stated that MAS has to admit that their revolutionary constitution is not going to be accepted; rather a transitional constitution in which some of the desired changes will be introduced. She added, "Due to the situation we are in, we can either have a confrontation or reach an agreement.  As we are seeking consensus, what we come up with will be something incomplete, that later may be deepened. We must seize the moment, and then we will see how to move forward."[1]

Intermittent participation of opposition parties in the political council process has slowed negotiations.  Most significantly Podemos, with 60 representatives in the Assembly, pulled out of meetings on October 9 stating that the group “is nothing more than a meeting of the official block from MAS and their allies.”[2] They disagreed with the presence of the Vice President and stated that the process was illegal and a waste of time.

Yet, calls both from some Podemos members and others, notably by the human rights ombudsman, to participate in the proceedings may have prompted their return to the negotiating table.  Being left out of debate on the ever-divisive autonomy issue may also have spurred them back into the fold.  Though Podemos participated in the negotiations on the autonomy issue, they did not consent to the agreement issued by the council.

Political council reaches compromises

Despite the accusations and sporadic participation of some opposition groups, the multi-party council has reached some compromises.  The first agreement, consented to by eleven of fourteen parties, affirms that the economy of Bolivia under the new constitution will be a model that includes private, state and communally held property.  The group also approved the right to inherit land. 

Perhaps most heavily debated, the council came to consensus on the autonomy issue with representation from ten parties.  The agreement affirms that the new constitution will establish four levels of autonomy: (1) departmental, (2) regional or provincial, (3) indigenous, first peoples (originaria), campesino and (4) municipal, all with territorial jurisdiction. The accord does not stipulate how these levels would be simultaneously implemented.  The agreement also states that the lowland departments that approved the July 2, 2006 Autonomy Referendum (Pando, Beni, Santa Cruz, and Tarija) will gain departmental autonomy immediately which would include the direct election of authorities by citizens and the ability for departmental legislatures to pass regional laws.

Almost immediately, indigenous groups, municipality umbrella organizations and the lowland departments rejected the agreement.  Indigenous groups stated that the text does not grant sufficient autonomy, as they believe that indigenous autonomy would be limited by departmental or municipal authorities.  Branko Marinkovic, head of the Civic Committee of Santa Cruz, stated “The so-called political council, made up of [political] parties,… has isolated itself, without transparency, to negotiate and write the new constitution.  As a result this famous council, led by MAS, can only produce a MAS constitution– a constitution woven by MAS members and for the benefit of MAS members.”[3] 

Negotiations postpone conflicts 

The Assembly is scheduled to resume sessions on October 22 and the political council plans to continue to meet until that time.  The capital issue is still on the agenda, as well as debates over land and territory, single versus bi-cameral legislative bodies, the MAS proposal for unlimited presidential reelection and the overarching structure of the state.  Though agreements may be reached in these areas, it is unclear how binding these accords are.

The political council is a negotiated improvisation on Assembly proceedings, without any official mandate from the Assembly.  While the council is attempting to resolve contentious issues and move forward the constitutional process, it is simultaneously diffusing and postponing simmering conflicts. Negotiation and compromise are essential elements of democracy, yet the political council, like other measures to avoid protracted confrontation, continues to provide partial solutions while creating gray areas which could lead to more conflicts.

Undoubtedly, a failure of the constitutional reform process in the short term could prove to be disastrous and thus compromise is vital.  The opposition should heed the warning of one of its members, a Podemos Assembly representative who stated, “The Assembly members should worry more about their constituents than about their political parties, for the Bolivian people more than their political colors.”[4] At the same time, the political forces and Assembly representatives need to carefully consider the long term implications of their decisions in an effort to avoid more conflicts in the future. 

[1] Los Tiempos. “Guzmán dice que 30 políticos deciden la nueva Constitución.”  October 15, 2007.

[2] La Razón. “El diálogo para los consensos retorna a La Paz.” October 9, 2007.

[3] “La Razón “Indígenas, cívicos y alcaldes rechazan el pacto autonómico” October 13, 2007.

[4] ABI. “Paz Pereira afirma que asambleístas deben responder al país y no a colores políticos.” October 5, 2007.