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27 Nov 2007 – New constitution outlined

Last weekend, after interminable delay, the Constituent Assembly finally began voting on the terms of the new constitution.  It did so following a boycott by the main right-wing opposition parties and amid scenes of violent anti-government demonstrations on the streets of Sucre, the city where the Assembly is being held.  Following months of fruitless negotiations and prevarications on the part of its opponents, and faced by a December 14 deadline, the ruling Movimiento al Socialismo (MAS) finally decided to dispense with its opponents’ presence and press ahead with its commitment to provide Bolivia with a new constitution.

This had been one of Evo Morales’ key commitments in 2005 when he was elected president with 54% of the vote.  The need for constitutional reform had been pressed for years by the various social movements which supported his candidacy.  A new constitution would give new legal rights and means of redress to the country’s poor and indigenous majority.  It would also pave the way for further institutional changes to consolidate the new disposition and to ensure that such changes would be lasting.

Elections took place for members of the Constituent Assembly in July 2006, in which the MAS emerged victorious, with more than half the seats in the new Assembly.  The Assembly began its work in August 2006 amid high hopes for the future.  It was given twelve months in which to produce a new constitution whose text would then be submitted to the people in a referendum.

But almost immediately, the conservative rump in the Assembly (led by the Podemos party) found a way to halt the proceedings, arguing that a two-thirds majority was required to approve each and every article of the new constitution.  If accepted, this would have given Morales’ opponents an effective veto.  The parties of the right had no interest in seeing Evo’s plans implemented, not least because these would challenge the long-held privileges of a small elite.  With little progress made by the following June, an extension to the deadline was agreed until December 14.

When the Assembly reconvened in August, it faced new difficulties.  Urged on by the right-wing Civic Committee of Santa Cruz, its counterpart in Sucre began to revive Sucre’s old claim to be capital of Bolivia.  Sucre had been Bolivia’s capital until 1899, since when the executive and Congress have sat in La Paz with the judiciary based in Sucre.  So it was that an arcane dispute, which most Bolivians consider an issue of secondary importance, became the next obstacle to progress.  Faced with physical threats to the security of its members, the plenum of the Assembly could not be convened.

Upheavals at the end of November in Sucre tend to hide the fact that a series of important political agreements have been reached involving 14 of the 16 different parties represented in the Assembly.  The main absentee from these discussions was Podemos, the second largest force after the MAS.  These were the main areas of agreement:

• Bolivia is a unitary state, composed of different nations, that recognises the right of free determination and self government on the part of indigenous peoples
• The state is responsible for the social welfare of the population, and recognises community organisation as playing a role in this; society is responsible for oversight of government administration
• The Bolivian state is a secular one
• Democracy is seen as a process involving widespread participation in addition to involvement in elections
• Natural resources are the property of the Bolivian people, and are administered by the state; property can be held by private and collective interests, as can land
• The state plays an important role in economic development and planning
• The economy brings together three main actors: the state, community enterprise and the private sector
• The state is decentralised to departmental, regional/provincial levels, to indigenous-campesino groupings and to municipalities; elected local government bodies at departmental level will legislate for their department, though the details of their competences are not yet clear.  Controls and balances will be provided by the state at national level.

It was only on November 24, with some three weeks to go before the deadline expired, that the government determined to jump-start the Assembly by removing it to a secure environment and forcing the pace of decision making.  A day later, the outline of the new constitution was approved by almost all those present.  As well as including many of the points listed above, the outline announced included the removal of the bar to immediate re-election on the part of the president and vice-president.  This would bring Bolivia into harmony with the majority of Latin American countries.