Bolivia’s Elections Part III: The Issues
As promised, we have just posted a new video featuring interviews with the National Senate candidates from Cochabamba from the two leading political parties in Sunday's vote, Evo Morales' MAS party and Manfred Reyes Villa's Plan Progreso para Bolivia-Concertación Nacional.
Subtitled in English, this offers you the chance to hear directly from those on Sunday's ballot. The video, which took great effort to arrange and produce, was put together by Aldo Orellana, Leny Olivera, Jessica Aguirre, and Anders Vang Nielsen of the Democracy Center team.
For those of you interested in seeing more images from the campaign here is an excellent collection of photographs offered to us generously from photographer Eric Mehl.
Our original post continues below. And a reminder, we'll be blogging live from around the country all day Sunday so tune in.
Bolivia’s Elections: The Issues
Prepared with enormous research support from Aldo Orellana.
A few days ago I was meeting with a pair of European Union election observers who asked for my perspective on the December 6th elections. In trying to explain a political culture that is a lot more complicated than meets the eye, I figured out an important difference between how elections work in a place like the U.S. and in Bolivia.
Voting in the U.S. is like going to a restaurant. People see what’s on the menu, decide what they want, and order. Last year Democrats were serving ample helping of troops withdrawals from Iraq (their Afghanistan entree is about to change) and expansion of government involvement in health care. Republicans had a special on “staying the course” and cutting taxes.
Bolivia is different. “Issues” are secondary in Bolivian politics. What drives things are identity and alliances aimed at securing power. In the old days a tripod of political parties with indistinguishable differences on the issues rotated the presidency amongst one another. Today an old elite that has been pushed out of power (the wealthy and upper middle class) smashes elbows against a new set of political allies, MAS. A big part of what drives these different alliances is class, ethnicity and culture. But some of it is just old-fashioned political opportunism. The ranks of MAS today include ample activists from Bolivia’s old establishment and right wing. With victory comes access to political spoils, most notably public employment, and so political opportunists flock to whomever seems bound for victory, which these days is MAS.
That said, there actually are issues being debated in this 2009 campaign if you dig past the name-calling. So here is installment three of our series on Bolivia’s elections, The Issues. This follows our two prior election posts: The Bolivian Elections I: Five Things to Understand About the Process and Bolivia’s Election Part II: The Candidates for President.
While the candidates for the Bolivian presidency have had no formal debates (Evo Morales refused to participate in them), on the stump, on campaign Web sites, and in advertisements there are four main issues that all three leading candidates – Evo Morales, Manfred Reyes Villa, and Samuel Doria Medina – seem to focus on most:
1. The New Constitution, Autonomy and the Structure of Government
A key push in President Morales’ first term was to change the rules of the political game in Bolivia, so it is no surprise that these issues have been the most combative over the past four years and are at the center of the current campaign.
President Evo Morales champions the new national constitution that was written by his MAS party and approved by Bolivian voters last January. Now Morales and MAS are pledging, in a second term, to pass more than 100 new laws to implement that new constitution. On regional and indigenous community autonomy, a key issue in the constitutional reform battle, Morales and MAS loosely describe their agenda this way. Regional departments should have autonomy to elect their leaders including those lower down the political ladder than just the governors. But resources, in particular land, gas and oil, should remain under national control.
Manfred Reyes Villa, who was an opponent of the new constitution, declares that it must be reformed. Among his targets for change is the requirement that the nation's judges be elected directly by the voters (he thinks they should be selected by their legal peers) and an end to talking about 36 separate Bolivian nationalities. Reyes Villa has also championed the cause of greater regional autonomy, though without much in the way of specifics of what that means.
Samuel Doria Medina has focused his campaign on the generation of employment for Bolivians and has had less to say about what plans he would have for the new constitution and autonomy, though he says he supports the latter.
2. The Nation’s Natural Resources and Spending the Windfall
What is most interesting is the virtually universal political turnaround on what was once one of the most controversial demands by Bolivia’s social movements (and a foundation of the Morales presidency) – a much bigger role for the government in the development of the nation’s gas and oil.
Nationalization vs. privatization has been a political pendulum in Bolivia since the 1930s and it was not so long ago that a greater state role was considered a radical relic of the past. For years, the International Monetary Fund pressured Bolivian governments to keep the oil and gas in the hands of multinational corporations and to keep the taxes on these corporations low. It was President Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada’s decision to follow just that recipe that sparked a 2003 shooting war between the army and the national police on the steps of the Presidential Palace.
Today, as a result of the new contracts and higher taxes implemented before Morales and after, combined with a spike in global petroleum prices, Bolivia has gone from having chronic deficits in its national budget to three years of surplus in a row. It also boasts $8 billion in cash reserves (much of it invested, ironically, in U.S. Treasury Bonds). Even the IMF seems to have gotten religion on the value of higher taxes on the multinationals. “Bolivia was prudent in saving part of the windfall during the expansion period,” said the IMF in a recent news release. “That has allowed the country to apply a counter-cyclical fiscal policy in 2009, including more public investment to support internal demand and the social protection network.”
So now the candidates really only argue about how to spend the money.
The Morales plan is straightforward – cash payments to the people and public works. Morales has established three new "bonus" programs. One gives cash payments to children in the country's public schools, an incentive for poor families to keep them there instead of pulling them out to work. Another is a revamped version of a bonus program for the nation's elderly. A third gives money to pregnant women. The government also claims to have distributed more than a thousand tractors to farmers, paved 840 miles of roads, constructed 545 clinics and health facilities, and financed water connections for 821,000 people.
What’s next? Morales now pledges that he will give a house to every new married couple in the country. The plan even comes with a catchy slogan, “El que se casa, casa quiere.” What will actually become of the sexy campaign promise remains to be seen. Morales has also committed himself to greater industrialization of the country’s gas and oil, and its newer buried treasure, lithium, with the aim of turning the resources into jobs not just royalties. But the road to forming an efficient state industry has been corruption-plagued and bumpy.
Manfred Reyes Villa’s stump speech (I just heard him at a rally in Tiquipaya last week) is a familiar song to those who have followed his career since his days dating back more than a decade ago as Cochabamba’s popular Mayor. The essence: He is a man who knows how to build stuff and he wants to do that all over the country – schools, clinics, paved roads, parks, sport facilities and more. And taking a strange page from George McGovern in 1972 he has also pledged to dig into some of those foreign reserves and give $1,000 to every family in the nation (he calculates this to be one million payments), to boost consumption and investment (and probably votes for him). On housing Reyes Villa pledges to expand government credit to homebuyers and on health to establish a national health insurance system.
Samuel Doria Medina, the only real businessman among the top three, has a mantra – jobs, jobs, jobs. He also boasts a serious program to try to generate new employment. He wants to create a $500 million fund to support the development, industrialization and exportation of organic food products from Bolivia, such as quinoa, coffee, rice, nuts, fruits and vegetables and llama meat. The fund would also provide Bolivians cultivating these products with technical support, new infrastructure, and help with finding export markets. In terms of social spending, his plans for a stronger safety net are much the same as his two competitors, but based on access to affordable credit rather than giveaways or cash payments. He would expand access to credit (which is wildly expensive in Bolivia) by offering $1,000 loans to one million families. Recently the owners of Bolivia’s Burger King franchise has bemoaned that Reyes Villa stole his idea and turned it into a handout instead of lending program.
The little green leaf that can alternatively be used to make herbal tea or cocaine has received some but not much attention in the campaign.
Morales, the former leader of the nation’s coca growers has a three part platform toward the leaf, captured by the slogan, “coca si, cocaina no.” First, he has allowed coca farmers to cultivate a limited acreage per family. Second he has pledged himself to the development of non-narcotic industrialized uses of the leaf (such as tea for export). Third, he declares he is dedicated, despite his ouster of the US Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA), to stopping cocaine production in Bolivia. And while the news is occasionally spotted with announcements of some new shutdown of a cocaine lab and confiscation of drugs, the government also seems deliberately oblivious to the expansion of small cocaine labs turning up in the remote hillsides above Cochabamba.
Reyes Villa has pledged his commitment to fighting illegal drug production in Bolivia, but seems to have been improvising a little on the stump a week ago with a new proposal dealing with traditional coca use. He announced that he would establish a 50% government subsidy for the purchase of coca for traditional use (chewing). No one here seems to be sure what his point is or how his plan would be implemented. I was tempted, however, to take my 10 Boliviano green bag of leaves with me to his Tiquipaya rally and see if I could get him to give me 5 Bolivianos back, but decided against it.
Doria Medina has simply pledged his support to government efforts against “narcotrafficking” with little specifics.
4. Bolivia’s Foreign Relations
President Morales has emphasized Bolivia’s sovereignty in foreign relations, meaning that the nation has the right to have relations with any country it likes in the form it likes. This has led to ongoing battles with the U.S., under both Presidents Bush and Obama, and close ties to Venezuela, Cuba, and more recently Iran. Bolivia has also worked actively on new cooperation arrangements with its Latin American neighbors under two different regional umbrellas, the left-oriented ALBA and the more inclusive UNASUR. The government’s work with UNASUR includes developing alternative trade arrangements to those pushed by the U.S., including an alternative system for resolving trade disputes with foreign investors.
Reyes Villa has pledged much closer relations with the U.S. and had criticized Morales for ousting the U.S. Ambassador last year and blames Morales for the Bush and Obama administration decisions to end Bolivia’s participation in the APDEA trade preference program.
Doria Medina argues for a foreign policy based on pursuing the country’s national economic interests, regardless of who that means doing business with. “We have to make commercial agreements with every country in the world, with the U.S., with China, with Venezuela, with Cuba, with everyone.” He says the Bolivian government needs to have commercial and diplomatic relations with countries it likes and countries it does not.