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Rumbles at Bolivia’s Constituent Assembly

What’s going on at Bolivia’s Constituent Assembly to rewrite the nation’s constitution? Pick your metaphor.

Is it this one reported last week? Assembly delegates from MAS, the socialist party of President Evo Morales, were saying something (evidently with great passion) in their native Quechua. Delegates from the PODEMOS party, the political vehicle of the nation’s wealthier elite, responded back, “We don’t understand you. We don’t speak Quechua.”

Are the rumblings at the Assembly evidence that Bolivians from such different viewpoints just can’t speak to each other?

Or, is it this one? On Friday the head of the MAS delegation tripped into the 6-foot-deep orchestra pit in the Assembly hall while speaking to delegates. He suffered a skull fracture and remains in critical condition.

Is MAS so enamored with its own agenda and its own speeches that it can’t see itself walking into a deep hole of political opposition?

Is it a power grab by Morales and MAS, as their critics claim? Is it a move by national elites, beaten badly at the polls twice, to block a legitimate process of transformation?

The Assembly has been an important political demand of indigenous and other social movement groups for years. Their aim has been to rewrite the rules of Bolivian politics to empower a national majority long marginalized, both politically and economically. This week the Assembly is in a state of turmoil, not over any differences of what the new national “Magna Carta” should contain (not yet), but over the process of the Assembly itself.

What is a Majority?

Under the law approved by the Bolivian Congress that convened the Assembly, the proposal that comes out of that process must clear it with a “supermajority” 2/3 vote. That number is very significant because, while MAS came in a huge first place in the July 2 vote to seat delegates, it has a strong majority but not 2/3. For any vote requiring 2/3, PODEMOS and the other main opposition party, UN, is in a position to block MAS over and over.

On Friday MAS delegates engineered a vote declaring that, on the litany of issues relating to how the Assembly does its business, a simple majority will do. Critics in the opposition were quick to declare that this is exactly the kind of Morales/MAS power grab that they feared.

The parties went into full polarization mode from there. PODEMOS announced that it was boycotting further Assembly sessions until the rule is changed. They, along with civic organizations in Santa Cruz and Beni, strongholds of anti-MAS opposition, began talking about organizing a regional general strike, the same kind of tactic that MAS and MAS allies commonly used against previous presidents.

Vice-President Alvaro Garcia-Linera took the tact of chiding PODEMOS and the others, for having eagerly governed the country (and pushing through huge economic changes like privatization) with governments elected with less than a quarter of the vote and less than half the mandate MAS enjoys. Morales announced over the weekend that he was ready to call on social movements to “mobilize” to Sucre (the city where the Assembly is meeting) to “protect” the process.

Hearing that no doubt caused opposition forces to remember June 2005, when mobilizations of miners blocked members of Congress from leaving Sucre and effectively stopped the President of the Senate from taking over the presidency when Carlos Mesa resigned. Morales’ weekend warnings only further inflamed the opposition.

Looking a Little Deeper

We’ve gotten several calls this week from reporters trying to make sense of the story. What does all this really mean beyond the fireworks of people falling into orchestra pits and threats of general strikes by the old guard elite?

First, when it comes to what the Morales government has a mandate to do, the two main sides really are speaking very different languages. Rightly or wrongly, Morales and MAS believe that they have a historic mandate to alter the political landscape of the nation in deep and far-reaching ways. PODEMOS and its allies, I think, still look at the MAS people as just having their turn at bat, so to speak. They have five years to do a few things here and there, but not wholesale political reconstruction of the state.

When MAS looks at its mandate it see Mandela and the ANC taking over the reins in South Africa in 1994 – a new constitution, a new weave of power, a new nation. PODEMOS sees Tuto handing over power to Goni in 2002, “Ok, your turn to steer a while, but keep moving in the same basic direction.”

That said, is the MAS/Morales effort to reshape Bolivia according to its vision any more radical that Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada’s massive changes in economic course in the 1990s, including the privatization of the nation’s energy reserves and a long list of public enterprises? It would be hard to find changes as radical as those, and those he did with a voter mandate in the low 20s.

Should MAS opponents be wary of a political power grab that tilts the scales unfairly to Morales’ favor? Of course, unchecked political power in any hands, be they of the left or right, is a dangerous thing – Political Science 101. But are the screams of PODEMOS and others really a rallying cry to protect democracy or the sound of that old elite finally finding some political traction in its effort to block MAS undoing the political instruments of its historic power?

In my view, that’s the real debate here.

Update Tuesday Morning

Here’s the latest on the political battle over the Constituent Assembly.

Yesterday civic leaders in four departments – Santa Cruz, Beni, Pando and Tarija – met in Santa Cruz. They denounced MAS’ moves in the Assembly as unconstitutional, announced a four-department general strike for Friday, and threatened to convene a rival Constituent Assembly to write their own constitution for Bolivia.

Vice-President Garcia-Linera repeated MAS’ position that a 2/3 vote would still be required for approval of the final proposal to come out of the Assembly, and that the majority vote rule would apply only to the work of the Assembly’s committees and on procedural issues. The V.P. also made a new proposal, echoed by one of the leaders of the opposition, the UN party’s Samuel Doria Medina, that if the new proposed constitution fails to win a 2/3 vote in the Assembly, it would go to a nationwide voter referendum where it could be approved by a majority of those voting.

The National Assembly on Human Rights called on all the parties to start talking again, sort of a “Can’t we all just get along?” declaration. In Cochabamba, Governor Manfred Reyes Villa stuck his nose under the tent of national politics (Reyes Villa nearly won the presidency in 2002 and is clearly positioning himself to run again), calling on MAS and others to respect the law that convened the Assembly but declining the opportunity to join with the more hostile anti-MAS opposition in Santa Cruz.

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