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.