Politics in Bolivia: Volatile Loyalties, Deep Divisions

(IPS) – The governing party in Bolivia is reeling from its latest electoral defeat, and beginning to doubt the popularity of President Evo Morales, who is putting his office, the vice president’s and those of provincial governors up for ratification in a recall referendum to be held on Aug. 10.

If the referendum were to take place today, Morales would lose, Carlos Laruta, the head of the Centre for Research and Promotion of Campesinos, or peasant farmers (CIPCA), told IPS. He was extrapolating the strongly polarised Jun. 29 election result for the governor of Chuquisaca department (province) to the rest of the country.

Savina Cuéllar, a 44-year-old indigenous woman, was until last year a supporter of the governing Movement Towards Socialism (MAS), on whose behalf she was elected to the Constituent Assembly that has drafted a new Bolivian constitution.

In June, however, she ran as a candidate for governor of Chuquisaca for the opposition rightwing Interinstitutional Committee Alliance (ACI) and was elected with 55.5 percent of the vote, against 40.5 percent for MAS candidate Wálter Valda.

The result is a mirror image of that of the province’s elections to the Constituent Assembly on Jul. 2, 2006, when the leftwing MAS garnered 54.8 percent of the vote while the rightwing Democratic and Social Power (Podemos) received only 14 percent.

However, Alex Contreras, former government spokesman, believes that the August referendum will be different because Morales’ own future will be at stake.

The capital of Chuquisaca is Sucre, in the centre-south of the country, the historical capital of Bolivia and the seat of the judicial branch of government. The Constituent Assembly was installed there on Aug. 6, 2006.

Sucre residents’ longstanding demand that all three branches of government should be located there unleashed disturbances and inflamed racist sentiments in the small city.

Pressure from a city anxious to host the executive and legislative branches, which have been located in La Paz since 1899, forced the Assembly to move its sessions to a building next to military barracks on Nov. 24, 2007.

The population became furious at this situation and protesters clashed with security forces, resulting in three deaths under still murky circumstances.

The disturbances, joined by rightwing organisations backing provincial autonomy, damaged Morales’ popularity in Sucre, and an opposition Interinstitutional Committee was formed to champion local demands.

After the violence, the previous governor, David Sánchez of MAS, resigned in spite of pressure from the government to stay in his post, and eventually sought political asylum in Peru.

In Sunday’s election, Cuéllar was chosen as Sánchez’s replacement and the country’s first woman governor, but she has been branded a "traitor" by indigenous sectors who suffered violence at the hands of a mob of inflamed university students and Interinstitutional Committee supporters on May 24.

Mayors, city councillors and campesino leaders were humiliated and forced to their knees in Plaza 25 de Mayo, a square commemorating May 25, where 183 years ago Bolivia declared its independence from the Spanish crown.

These events were reflected in the election. The city voted en masse for Cuéllar, while more than 50 percent of the largely indigenous Quechua population of the rural areas of Chuquisaca voted for MAS.

The result accentuates the already marked differences between the countryside and the city, which can be interpreted from several points of view, from the political to the analysis of differences in social conditions.

Laruta’s political reading of the events that led up to the election is that the government was mistaken when it forced a vote by the Constituent Assembly in the city of Oruro on Dec. 9 to approve the draft text of the constitution, to be put to a national referendum, and it was also an error to exclude the issue of the status of Sucre as the country’s capital from political debate.

"Its attitude has been interpreted to mean that MAS and Morales despise Chuquisaca," and at the same time its policy has been to isolate sectors that do not share the government’s opinions, he said.

Laruta also analysed the Morales administration from a sociological point of view, and said it was "too ethnocentric", that is, it overemphasised indigenous people’s issues. In his view, city dwellers and small farmers are all to some degree affected by "mestizaje" (racial mixing), which tends to create an intercultural society across the country.

"The mistakes made by MAS have turned middle-income sectors that used to support Morales against him," said the head of CIPCA.

Former presidential spokesman Contreras said, with a sincerity that appears to be absent from leaders of the party in government, that "this political defeat should be faced with maturity and evaluated in a spirit of self-criticism, and more work should be done with respect to the social movements that have been neglected."

Contreras resigned as Morales’ spokesman on Apr. 1. In a letter, he expressed his firm belief in the freedom of the press and the media.

In spite of the estrangement between them, Contreras’ view is that Morales’ support has not fallen below the 54 percent with which he was elected in December 2005. He is confident that the social programmes and revenues from natural gas extraction will help to confirm Morales in the presidency, even in the provinces of Santa Cruz, Beni, Pando and Tarija, where the opposition is strongest.

Apparently, the same perception has driven the governors of these four provinces, as well as opposition governors Manfred Reyes Villa of Cochabamba and José Luis Paredes of La Paz, to announce they will not participate in the recall referendum that they supported in late 2007 with the backing of rightwing PODEMOS parliamentarians.

Faced with this change of position, Morales is determined to sweep away the "neoliberal" governors, as he said Tuesday in the northwestern Argentine city of Tucumán, where he was attending the Mercosur (Southern Common Market) Summit.