Bolivia's make-or-break referendum

Bolivia's Right has pushed for a referendum to unseat Evo Morales, but could it hurt them more than

The gauntlet has been thrown down. President Evo Morales has fixed 10 August as the date for the recall referendum that will decide his fate, and that of his vice-president and nine 'departmental prefects', the heads of regional government. He will hope for a victory that will silence the country's increasingly vocal right-wing opposition.

It was the right who initiated the recall referendum, though it now seems the ploy may backfire. On 8 May, the bill introducing a referendum, originally a government initiative, was passed by the opposition-controlled senate. Opposition leaders believe that popular opinion is fast moving against the government and that the bill creates an opportunity to force Morales’ resignation. Rising to the challenge, Morales immediately signed it into law.

The left-leaning government in Bolivia has come under growing attack from the opposition parties, which refuse to accept the legitimacy of a new constitutional text, drafted last year by a representative constituent assembly. The new constitution promises to extend the political and social rights of the country’s indigenous majority, one of the pledges that helped Morales win a landslide victory in the December 2005 presidential elections.

From its political base in the resource-rich eastern lowland department of Santa Cruz, the opposition wants to neuter the constitution. To do so, it recently raised the political stakes by demanding autonomy for Santa Cruz, as well as three other lowland departments (Tarija, Beni and Pando). On 4 May, in spite of widespread abstention, civic authorities in Santa Cruz scored a victory in a departmental referendum to approve de facto ‘statutes of autonomy’ that negate the sense of the new constitution. But the vote was denounced by the central government as illegal and unconstitutional.

By calling the August recall referendum, Morales is now putting his own presidential career on the line. It is a gamble he thinks he will win. To force the president’s resignation, the opposition will need to muster a greater margin of votes than the 53.7% that Morales secured in 2005. Recent opinion polls underline the president’s popularity, especially in the more populous western highlands.

By the same token, the prefects will also be obliged to submit themselves to the recall referendum in their own departments. As with the presidency and vice-presidency, to recall incumbent prefects, a ‘no’ vote must be supported by at least the voting strength with which that incumbent was originally elected.

Until 2005, prefects were presidential appointees, but since then they have gained legitimacy as elected local leaders. In the case of the lowland departments, they have won prominence by spearheading the demand for autonomy. Ruben Costas, the prefect of Santa Cruz, was a key figure behind the 4 May referendum. Under the statutes of autonomy, he stands to become the department’s first governor.

Most lowland prefects will probably secure a renewed mandate in the recall referendum, since their role in the campaign for autonomy has put them in the limelight. However, the future is not so certain for opposition prefects in those parts of the country where Morales' MAS party is strong. The opposition prefects of La Paz and Cochabamba may be particularly at risk.

So rather than undermining his position, the campaign for the recall referendum may actually help Morales seize the political initiative. If he emerges strengthened from the vote – a distinct possibility – he will then push ahead with holding a further referendum required to approve the new constitution.

The constitution is central to the government’s reform agenda. This seeks to reverse neoliberal policies, reclaim public ownership for key industries and use the resources this brings to improve the lot of the poor, in what is South America’s most poverty-stricken republic.

The opposition, however, is in no mood to admit defeat. Assuming the lowland prefects are ratified in post this August, they will continue to use the issue of autonomy to harry the government. This may mean appointing de facto departmental governments and even seeking to retain the fiscal resources that the wealthier eastern departments contribute to the national coffers.

John Crabtree is a research associate at the Latin American Centre, Oxford.

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An English hero for the ages: Ian Botham at 60

Botham blends his sportsmanship and deep-seated passion for cricket with a lust for life.

Begging W H Auden’s pardon, it is possible both to honour and to value the vertical man, and in the case of Ian Botham, who turned 60 on 24 November, it is our bounden duty. No sportsman has given Britons so much to enjoy in the past half-century and no sportsman is loved more. Two decades after he retired from first-class cricket, his reputation as one of life’s champions remains unassailable.

No mere cricketer is he, either. Botham is a philanthropist, having raised more than £12m for various charities, notably Leukaemia and Lymphoma Research. In December, 30 years after his first walk from John o’Groats to Land’s End, he will set off again, in South Africa, where England are on tour. And he really does walk, too, not amble. As somebody who accompanied him on one of his dozen walks said: “You can’t keep up with him. The man is a phenomenon.”

Of all postwar sportsmen, only Bobby Charlton and, at a pinch, Henry Cooper come close to matching Botham’s enduring popularity. But Charlton, a shy man who was scarred by the Munich plane crash of 1958 (and may never have recovered from its emotional effects), has never comfortably occupied a public stage; and Cooper, being a boxer, had a solitary role. Botham, by contrast, spoke for England. Whenever he picked up his bat, or had a ball in his hand, he left spectators in no doubt.

Others have also spoken for England. Bobby Moore and Martin Johnson, captains respectively of England’s World Cup-winning football and rugby teams, were great players but did not reach out to people as naturally as Botham. Nick Faldo, Lester Piggott, Sebastian Coe and, to bring us up to date, Lewis Hamilton have beaten the best in the world, but they lacked those qualities that Botham displayed so freely. That is not to mark them down. They were, and are, champions. But Botham was born under a different star.

It was John Arlott, the great cricket commentator, who first spotted his uniqueness. Covering a match at Taunton in 1974, he asked the young colt to carry his bags up the rickety staircase to the press box, where Arlott, wearing his oenophile’s hat, pulled out a bottle of red wine and invited Botham to drink. Forty years later Botham is a discriminating wine drinker – and maker. Along with his friend and fellow England great Bob Willis, and their Australian wine­making pal Geoff Merrill, he has put his name to a notable Shiraz, “BMW”.

Arlott, with his nose for talent and good company, saw something in the young Botham that Brian Close, his captain at Somerset, was beginning to bring out. Later, Mike Brearley, as England captain, drew out something even more remarkable. As Rodgers and Hammerstein wrote, you’ve got to be carefully taught. And Botham, a fine team man as well as a supreme individual performer, has never withheld praise from those who enabled him to find his voice.

If sport reveals character, then cricket is the game that reveals it most clearly. In no other sport is the individual performance rooted so firmly in a team context. Every over brings a contest of skill and intelligence between batsman and bowler but only a team can win the match. “A cricketer,” as Arlott said, “is showing you something of himself all the time.”

Cricket also reveals national character more than any other sport. Football may be the most popular game in the world but cricket, and cricketers, tell us far more about England and Englishness. It is instructive, in this regard, to hear what Philippe Auclair, a French journalist and author long resident in London, has to say about Botham: “He is essentially an 18th-century Englishman.” In one! It’s not difficult to sense a kinship with Tom Jones, Fielding’s embodiment of 18th-century life, who began his journey, as readers may recall, in Somerset.

A country boy who played for Worcestershire after leaving Somerset, and who lives by choice in North Yorkshire, Botham is an old-fashioned Englishman. Although nobody has yet found him listening to the parson’s sermon, he is conservative with a small and upper-case C, a robust monarchist, handy with rod and gun, and happiest with a beaker in front of him. He represents (though he would never claim to be a representative) all those people who understand instinctively what England means, not in a narrow way, but through something that is in the blood.

Above all, he will be remembered for ever as the hero of 1981. Even now it takes some believing that Botham bowled and batted with such striking success that the Australians, who were one up after two Tests, were crushed. Some of us who were actually at Headingley for the famous third Test – thousands who claim to have been there were not – recall the odds of 500-1 on an England victory going up on the electronic scoreboard that Saturday evening.

Botham made 149 not out as England, following on, beat the Aussies by 18 runs. For three hours the country seemed to stop. In the next Test, at Edgbaston, Botham took five wickets for one run as Australia fell under his spell. Then, at Old Trafford, on a dank Saturday afternoon, he played the most memorable innings of his life and one of the greatest innings ever played by an Englishman: 118 magnificent, joyful runs. Joy: that’s the word. Botham brought joy into people’s lives.

Yet it was the final Test at the Oval, which ended in a draw, that brought from him a performance no less remarkable than those from before. He bowled 89 overs in that match, flat out, continuing to run in when others withdrew with injury. That was the team man coming to the fore. Little wonder his comrades thought the world of him.

Modest, loyal, respectful to opponents, grateful to all who have lent him a hand, and supported throughout a turbulent life by Kath, his rock of a wife, and their three children, this is a cricketing hero to rank with W G Grace, Jack Hobbs, Wally Hammond and Fred Trueman. A feature in the lives of all who saw him, and a very English hero. 

This article first appeared in the 26 November 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Terror vs the State