Morales and opponents
both score big wins
Results of a recall referendum in Bolivia Sunday defined even more sharply the split already apparent in the country from earlier referendums in which four of the country's nine departments voted for "autonomia."
President Morales' tenure in office was ratified, and probably strengthened, by a "yes" vote of around 62 percent on whether he should be retained in office, according to projections made by television networks late Sunday night. The victory was probably big enough to encourage the President to push for approval of a controversial new constitution, which had seemed to be in abeyance.
However, all four of the prefects (governors) in the pro-autoniomia provinces also appeared to have been retained in office by the referendum, with at least one of them, Ruben Costas of Santa Cruz, winning by an even wider margin in his department of Santa Cruz than the President.
Moreover, President Morales actually lost in all four of the departments that had voted for autonomia, as well as in Chuquisaca, a department that did not conduct a referendum because it had recently elected a new anti-Morales prefect (See story below in "While We Were On Vacation").
Two anti-Morales prefects lose
The big loser in the recall referendum was Manfred Reyes, the prefect of the department (state) of Cochabamba, and a nationally known political figure who had once made an impressive run for the presidency. Reyes, a consistent critic of President Morales, received a yes vote of only around 38 percent.
He was the only prefect who never recognized the legitimacy of the recall vote, and only made a small effort to campaign in his own behalf in the final week before the vote. He did not vote Sunday. Reyes has said he would not step down from his post even if the vote went against him, as it did.
One other prefect who had opposed President Morales was defeated -- Jose Luis Peredes of La Paz. Peredes at one point had commanded an independent power base resulting from his two successful terms as mayor of El Alto, but was long considered to be operating on borrowed time because the department has increasingly become a stronghold of President Morales' Movement Toward Socialism (MAS) party.
Great day for a referendum
Sunday – the day of voting – was cloudless with gentle breezes in most of Bolivia, a day of precious beauty and delicate tranquility. Normal civilian vehicular traffic is banned from the streets on election days, and a holiday atmosphere was in evidence at least in Santa Cruz, with families out bicycling together on the nearly empty avenues.
The scene, in short, was utterly and completely at odds with the mood of civic irritability and unrest that had pervaded the country all week.
Protestors prevented President Morales from making appearances in Sucre and Santa Cruz, underlining again that the chief executive cannot travel freely in his own country.
Hundreds of civic leaders in the departments that have voted for “autonomia” -- Santa Cruz, Tarija, Beni and Pando – began hunger strikes whose announced purpose was to persuade the President to resume automatic sharing with departments and municipalities of the government’s revenues from taxes and royalties on hydrocarbons that had been mandated by law, but which the president had curtailed by decree earlier this year.
(Exactly how these hunger strikes are supposed to influence the President is unclear. President Morales and his colleagues made fun of the hunger strikers during the week, accusing them of going home to big barbeques at the close of day when out of public view, and suggesting that many of them could afford to lose a few kilos anyway.)
Dynamite as Fire Crackers
Meanwhile, the country’s government-employed tin workers – a really fun group of guys who toss around sticks of dynamite like firecrackers when they march – were out protesting for higher pensions.
Not to be outdone, a group of handicapped Bolivians took over public buildings and sought to block access to refineries to back up their demands for benefits.
The propane shortage continued, with angry crowds forming around distribution points that sold out of their supplies within five hours of opening, leaving many would-be customers unsatisfied and angry.
In addition, lines of cars formed at service stations as gasoline supplies dwindled in Santa Cruz. The government said this was because of a forecasting error on the part of the government company that refines and distributes gasoline, but very possibly it was because the country is running out of petroleum as well as natural gas.
Protestors also prevented the presidents of Venezuela and Argentina from landing at the airport in Tarija for a planned summit meeting with President Morales on the energy crisis in Bolivia.
At week’s end the government did announce that the government-owned oil company in Venezuela would send three well-drilling rigs to Bolivia to try to increase Bolivian production, which currently is failing to meet the country’s domestic demand and international obligations. It wasn’t clear exactly how Venezuela could spare the rigs, because that country is also desperately short of drilling equipment.
An article in the New York Times Magazine in 2007 said that Venezuela needed 191 rigs to maintain current production, and was about 120 short of that. (Many thanks to alert reader Otto Rock for providing the current number of rigs in Venezuela -- 115.)
For a fuller discusssion of Bolivia's gas and oil situation, see "Whose Oil Is It, Anyway?" posted June 19, 2008, below.
The mood among many voters we know in Santa Cruz was one of uncertainty and puzzlement, partly over the lack of vigor with which the civic leaders had prosecuted the campaign for a “no” vote against President Morales in this region, where the President is a highly unpopular figure.
"When you aim for a king . . ."
There were at least two reasons for the half-heartedness of the anti-Morales campaign. One was that, given the President’s popularity in the western part of the country, it was unlikely that he could be recalled, and a failed effort to remove him would tend to strengthen the President’s hand even further. As the old political adage counsels, “When you aim for a king, don’t miss.”
The anti-Morales forces in Santa Cruz actually seemed surprised when a poll taken a month before the referendum showed Morales getting a “yes” vote of only 49 percent, with many voters undecided. Later polls, however, showed the President getting a healthy majority of the vote, as he in fact did.
Morales better than nothing?
Secondly, many of the pro-autonomy leaders actually said that they believed a national government with President Morales at its head was preferable to the chaos that would ensue if he were removed from office, leaving the country leaderless until a new president could be elected.
The leading opposition party to Morales, Podemos, apparently did not consult with civic leaders in Santa Cruz and elsewhere prior to agreeing to the recall referendum, which had been put forward originally by the President.
Still, at the end, there was a steady flow of advertisements on television, radio, and in newspapers favoring the prefects and defending “autonomia,” while answering the equally heavy flow of ads urging the retention of the president.
Kids were stationed outside supermarkets in the final days distributing flyers urging a “no” vote on the President and a “yes” vote on Santa Cruz’ pro-autonomy prefect, Ruben Costas. At traffic intersections youths offered motorists pro-Costas bumper stickers. Still, there was little political paraphernalia urging a “no” vote on the President. For example, there weren't any "VOTE NO ON EVO bumper stickers.
An unclear "bottom line"
So what did it all mean?
President Morales can say that he still has a strong mandate to lead the nation. The 62 percent "yes" vote was higher then the 54 percent he got when he was first elected in 2005, and that earlier total represented the first time that a presidential candidate in Bolivia had exceeded 50 percent. (The elections are multi-party affairs in which past winners have sometimes gotten substantially less than a third of the vote.)
The President was also able to remove from office two prominent critics, Manfred Reyes and Jose Luis Peredes. His popularity in the four departments he carried was very impressive. He received over 80 percent of the vote in La Paz, Oruro and Potosi.
The president's opponents can say that anti-Morales sentiment prevailed in five of the country's nine departments, and by a substantial margin. Sixty-four percent of the voters in Santa Cruz voted to remove the President from office. The provinces in which the President lost are the ones that are producing most of Bolivia's economic growth.
It can also be said that President Morales was not running against anybody. The opposition to him at the national level remains inchoate and leaderless.
Whither the constitution?
It would be very hard to figure out what the vote presaged in terms of a proposed new constitution, which would infringe property rights, and further centralize control of the country. Opponents of Morales' policies would fight hammer and tongs against the constitution, which they did not do in Sunday's recall referendum.
The constitution is far more vulnerable to attack than was the President, who undeniability has great popularity in at least the western part of the country.
The constitution's tarnished provenance will certainly be used against it. Most Bolivians know that the document was approved by a rump session of the constitutional convention under military guard with only adherents of President Morales' party present and voting. The convention had been chased out of Sucre, where it was originally convened, by angry mobs.
There was a continuing confusion over just how many votes the prefects would need to avoid recall. The original law required that the prefects get more votes than opposition candidates had totaled back when they were originally elected in 2005. This meant that the prefects had to get, variously, between 52 and 59 percent of the vote. In some cases the vote totals were in dispute.
The national electoral court tried to clarify the situation by decreeing that the prefects only needed 50 percent plus one to be retained, but President Morales said that ruling was invalid, and the matter was in doubt even as voters went to the polls Sunday. Fortunately, none of the important results fell into the disputed range. Only the future of the MAS prefect in Oruro remained in doubt Tuesday.
This weblog was created to provide a fuller and more accurate picture of the current situation in Bolivia. Our principal effort to try to pull things together and place them in proper perspective is the penultimate post below, titled "Main Story."