The Constituent Assembly approves draft
The approval of a constitution embedding new rights for Bolivia's indigenous majority has opened new political battlelines, says John Crabtree.
Bolivia's ruling Movimiento al Socialismo (MAS) and its allies anticipated the looming deadline for the rewriting of the country's constitution - 14 December 2007 - by approving the new 411-article constitutional draft on 8-9 December. The constituent assembly in the city of Oruro approved the new text - sixteen months since its inauguration on 6 August 2006, and in the absence of the main opposition party - in only sixteen hours. The new document, which involves major institutional changes with respect to the rights of Bolivia's indigenous peoples, will be put to a referendum in 2008. But Bolivia's opposition, encouraged by Hugo Chávez's defeat in the Venezuelan referendum on 2 December 2007, is promising a relentless fight to prevent it being ratified; the battlelines for a new contest between left and right are being drawn.
The government of Evo Morales and the MAS, voted into office on a wave of public support in December 2005, had promised at the outset to overhaul the constitution to give a bigger political voice to Bolivia's indigenous majority. The constituent assembly, in which the MAS won more than half the seats, began its deliberations in August 2006 with an initial mandate of twelve months in which to agree upon a draft constitution, with a referendum scheduled to follow.
The lengthy delays in achieving agreement on procedural issues - particularly the majority with which new articles to the constitution would be approved - meant that the deadline for completing the draft text had to be postponed from 6 August to 14 December 2007. The opposition parties demanded that each and every article would have to be approved by a two-thirds majority; since they held more than a third of the seats, they knew that this would give them an effective veto.
A compromise agreement was eventually reached on this thorny issue. A further delay was then caused by the insistence of the inhabitants of Sucre, the colonial city where the assembly was being held, that their town should regain its former status as Bolivia's full capital. Sucre had been capital up until 1899, when it was relegated to being the seat of the judiciary alone while the executive and legislature moved to La Paz. Sucre's civic committee, infuriated by the refusal of the assembly to consider this issue (and backed in their attitude by the opposition) made it effectively impossible for the assembly to convene.
The bull by the horns
In late November 2007, with the revised December deadline only days away, the Morales government finally decided to seize the initiative. It removed the plenary of the assembly to the more secure environment of a military academy just outside Sucre. Here it was surrounded by troops and MAS loyalists, provoking protests from the main opposition parties, who boycotted the proceedings and instead took to the streets. In the melee that ensued, four people (three protestors and one police officer) were killed and hundreds hurt. But with the opposition absent, the MAS and its left-of-centre allies speedily approved an outline constitution by an overwhelming majority.
The assembly members then found themselves unable to return in safety to Sucre, and reconvened finally in the city of Oruro on 8 December to approve the new text item by item. The approved text was - with some minor last-minute changes - that drawn up by the MAS bloc in the assembly. Podemos, the main opposition party, again absented itself (apart from a brief incursion to register its protest), although the smaller Unidad Nacional (UN) did attend. The fact that the number of delegates present from the MAS and its allies was well in excess of the two-thirds required meant that the new constitution was summarily approved with little debate on the substance of the details.
Read the rest of this article on the Open Democracy website.