On January 25, 2009, Bolivians approved a new constitution, voting 61 percent in favor and 39 percent against, realizing a long-standing demand of Bolivian social movements and fulfilling a principal campaign pledge of President Evo Morales. The 411-article constitution represents an attempt to break with Bolivia’s colonial past, and the legacy of poverty and exclusion that plagues much of the country’s indigenous majority. Among the key features of the new constitution are provisions that (a) give greater rights to indigenous peoples (in such areas as recognition, systems of justice, education, religion, language and territory), (b) provide the state greater control over the economy (notably, over the country’s natural resources), (c) secure access to health care, education, food and water as ‘rights’, and (d) permit the president to sit for two consecutive terms. In the case of Morales, this allows him to stand for one additional term in an election to be held later this year. Additionally, Bolivians voted overwhelmingly to limit large agricultural land holdings to 5,000 hectares (12,355 acres), although this will not be applied retroactively to those who already hold large tracts of land.
Constitutional approval came despite strong criticisms from business and autonomist groups in the eastern departments of the media luna that the Constituent Assembly’s drafting and ratification process was illegal, as well as objections by social movements and organizations that too many concessions were made to appease the opposition (such as lack of retroactivity in agrarian reform). Ethnic, class and regional cleavages produced recurrent conflicts throughout the process of writing and approving the new constitution, climaxing in the September 11, 2008 massacre of 20 pro-Morales campesinos in the northern department of Pando. Though it appeared at times that the gridlock was insurmountable, international observers, most notably from the Union of South American Nations (UNASUR), played an important role in breaking the impasse between Bolivian parties, resulting in a compromise that was approved by a majority of the Bolivian Congress in October 2008. That body will now have the task of legislating over dozens of issues that arise out of the new charter.
For further analysis by John Crabtree, click here.
The Andean Democracy Network prepared a report on run-up to the Referendum in Bolivia. Download the PDF by clicking on the link: Flash Report on Referenda in Bolivia