Roadblocks to Bolivian Elections

The road to Bolivian elections, scheduled for December fourth, is becoming increasingly fraught with obstacles. With Carlos Mesa’s resignation and the inauguration of Supreme Court head, Eduardo Rodriguez, as interim president last June, a hard fought political agreement was reached to move up national elections, originally to take place in 2007. That journey, however, recently hit a large roadblock as a new Bolivian Constitutional Court ruling threatens to delay elections.

Rodriguez has warned he will resign if elections do not take place as planned, stating that his sole mandate is to insure a democratic electoral transition. A resignation only four months after his inauguration, and the resulting uncertainty would inevitably pitch the nation once again into political chaos.

The risk of electoral postponement occurs at a time when Bolivia’s discredited traditional political parties struggle to redefine new images, and distance themselves from the stigma of past regimes and parties, and the coca question takes center stage as a defining and polarizing issue between leading candidates. As campaigning officially begins, the question of how an electoral winner will be able to orchestrate the power sharing necessary to form and maintain a governing coalition in Bolivia’s fractious political environment becomes critical.

The conflicts over elections also come at a time of visible unrest over still unresolved issues including the question of a Constituent Assembly and the extradition and trial of former president Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada for sixty deaths during October 2003. Although the promise of elections has forestalled escalating general conflict, Bolivia has seen limited blockades and protests recently by social groups, municipalities, and universities over the destination of new tax revenues generated by the implementation of the much-disputed hydrocarbons law, passed during the Mesa administration.

Constitutionality of Elections Questioned

Under fierce social pressure and demands for substantive change after Mesa’s resignation, Bolivian legislators begrudgingly agreed to cut short their terms and convene early parliamentary elections to coincide with presidential elections scheduled for December fourth. In late September, the Constitutional Court, however, ruled that congressional seats must be reapportioned to reflect population shifts demonstrated in 2001 census data, and without this change, elections would be unconstitutional. The substance of the ruling- the revision of seats based on census data- is not being called into question. What is extremely problematic and controversial, however, is the timing of the ruling, as parties have already defined candidates according to the existing distribution of seats, just a little over two months before the scheduled Election Day. Legally, Rodriguez has a 180-day mandate that expires at the end of January with the inauguration of the new president. If elections go forward without regard for the ruling, however, election results could be challenged as illegitimate.

The proposed change would mean a loss of seats for impoverished highland departments such as Potosi, Oruro, and La Paz, and a gain of as many as four seats for the eastern city of Santa Cruz due to migration. Because of the demographic makeup of the departments which stand to lose and gain seats, the revision would likely work to the benefit of candidates to the right of the political spectrum, such as Jorge Quiroga, and to the detriment of Evo Morales and MAS. The ruling aggravates tensions between western and eastern departments already inflamed over questions of regional autonomy. In such, the ruling is luring elites and congressional representatives to prioritize regional and personal interests over national stability. The results could prove catastrophic and shatter the delicate truce obtained last June to permit elections.

Political Maneuvering Exacerbates Tensions

Widespread speculation abounds about potential political motives to impede or delay elections. The Constitutional Court ruling occurred just days after the announcement that MAS party candidate and coca grower leader, Evo Morales, leads most national polls. Political analysts speculate that the almost inevitable protests and social unrest from social sectors could discredit Morales’s candidacy, swinging support to ex-President Jorge Quiroga. Quiroga’s primary campaign promise has been a zero tolerance policy regarding blockades and social disruption. Morales, Quiroga, and others blame political meddling by ousted president Sánchez de Lozada to politically destabilize the nation and maintain power and congressional seats for his MNR party. If Rodriguez were to step down, the MNR’s President of the Senate, Sandro Giordano would technically be next in line to take office. The MNR is currently embroiled in the stigma of a trial against ex- party appointees and allies for killings by governmental forces during October 2003. Furthermore, with a virtually unknown presidential candidate, Michiaki Nagatani (initially the party’s vice presidential candidate could not pronounce his running mate’s name); the party is expected to fare pitifully if elections occur.

The final decision about when to hold elections falls to Bolivia’s congress, famous for partisan infighting and blocking of legislative reform initiatives. The majority of Bolivian congressional representatives represent the interests of the parties that brought them to power over the needs of their supposed constituents. The great majority of congressional seats are roughly apportioned proportionally to popular votes received by a party’s presidential candidate. Most congresspeople currently in office were part of the Sánchez de Lozada governing coalition and have little chance of reelection. As a result, additional time in office, if elections do not occur, could prove politically and financially beneficial. Many of these representatives have shifted party ties and alliances, primarily to Quiroga’s PODEMOS, and Samuel Doria Medina’s UN party in an attempt to maintain power. The reappearance on election rosters of at least 25 "turncoats" from traditional parties suggests that party affiliation in many cases has more to do with personal gain than ideological affinity.

Persistent Structural Weaknesses Impede Definitive Resolution

Regardless of the timing of elections, the underlying causes of Bolivia’s recent political and social upheaval still remain unaddressed. For example, the existing electoral system does not facilitate a mandate for any candidate. With a total of eight tickets and no party yet polling above 30%, it is unlikely that any one candidate will garner a majority of the popular vote. The Bolivian constitution mandates that if no candidate garners 51% of the popular vote, the decision goes to congress. Candidates must then paste together a majority coalition within congress to win the presidency. The extreme political divergence of the likely top vote winners, MAS and PODEMOS, makes majority coalition building improbable. Morales has already stated he will not ally with any of the traditional parties, as such an alliance would dramatically erode the legitimacy of a potential Morales government. Instead, Morales boldly asserts that his party will win 51% of the popular vote outright. In this scenario, Morales could win the popular vote, but lose the election to a coalition of Quiroga and others. Quiroga also claims that he will not assume the presidency if he fails to win the popular vote. As in the past, Bolivia could be left with a president who was neither the first nor second popular choice. This structural flaw has eroded the legitimacy of the last three Bolivian administrations, severely undermining Bolivians’ confidence in their leaders.

These weaknesses in the electoral system are not the only challenges facing the next Bolivian president. Any candidate or successor will continue to face almost insurmountable obstacles and internal demands, including the distribution of limited resources to benefit a largely impoverished population, carrying out a Constituent Assembly acceptable to a deeply divided population, and meeting demands for accountability for ex-officials. External pressure, including U.S. mandates for coca eradication, staunch opposition to a Morales-led administration, and economic interests of international oil and gas companies often conflict with national sovereignty and interests. Even if elections do occur as scheduled, Bolivia faces an increasingly rocky and turbulent future.

For more information please contact Kathryn Ledebur at the Andean Information Network: