On Sunday, Bolivians will vote on whether to change the constitution to allow President Evo Morales and vice-president Álvaro Garcia Linera to run for a fourth term during the 2019 election.
The referendum will ask whether voters agree with a constitutional change allowing the president and vice-president to be re-elected on two continuous occasions. The pair are already serving their third term, but have successfully pushed for it to be counted as the second term on the grounds that the first pre-dated the current constitution.
Ruling party Movement for Socialism (Movimiento Al Socialismo or ‘MAS’), will still be eligible for re-election if Bolivians vote against the proposal, but the president and vice-president would not be allowed to stand as candidates. The election will be held in 2019 for the 2020-2025 term.
The No campaign
Opponents of the proposal see it as a move by the president to cling to power. They believe allowing Morales and Garcia Linera more time in power is not a valid reason to change something as important as the national constitution, and ask why MAS does not simply look for other candidates.
“The political constitution of a country is sacred. You can’t touch it. You can only change it for the good of the population,” says Antonio Gomes, a No campaigner speaking to Latin Correspondent in the city of Cochabamba, central Bolivia.
He was concerned that Bolivia would follow the path of Fidel Castro in Cuba or Hugo Chávez in Venezuela. Morales dedicated his landslide 2014 election victory to both historic leaders. “If we don’t do this (campaign) now, we will be complicit,” Gomes said.
Local media say the campaign is being turned into a debate about the virtue of Morales himself, rather than whether it is right to allow presidents to serve three terms in power. “In recent weeks, the main events have been reports of corruption, as well as defence and explanation (against that). Fundamentally, these themes have been the axis of public discussion,” economist Armando Ortuño told La Razón.
Opinion said the vote had “changed into a plebiscite of approval or reproval” of the president. Hostile locals make personal comments about the fact that he has no university education and no family.
Many Bolivians are angry at perceived corruption in the Morales government. In fact, the current president is facing accusations of influence peddling after revelations that he had a relationship with Gabriela Zapata, the commercial manager of Chinese company CAMC Engineering. The Bolivian state has signed contracts with the company worth more than $550 million. A poll of 600 people by the newspaper Página Siete showed that the recent media scandal had given the No campaign a healthy boost.
Morales also claimed in an interview with television channel ATB that the No campaign was being funded by the U.S. “If we were being funded by the US, do you think we would be in this poverty?” asked Gomes. “We would have T shirts, pencils, and merchandise.”
The rented No campaign house where we are speaking consists of two windowless rooms with a rolling garage door. Dotted around the room are a few paint-speckled plastic chairs, some rolled-up banners, and a sound system. In the back room, more banners and some wire. “That wire is recycled,” Gomes says.
The Yes campaign
Yes campaigners point to Morales’s track record of political and economic stability in addition to his reputation as a champion of indigenous rights. They add that he needs more time to finish his projects, which include the eradication of extreme poverty across the country. Bolivia is the poorest country in South America based on GDP, although the figure remains above that of Central American countries including Honduras and Nicaragua.
Under Morales and economy minister Luis Arce, the World Bank has recognised Bolivia’s government for its prudent financial management: $14 billion in international reserves will protect the country from the end in the commodities boom which is likely to hit earnings. Critics highlight the contrast between Morales’ anti-capitalist, pro-environment rhetoric and his friendliness towards oil, gas, mining, and other extractivist companies.
Fans view Morales’ stance as a good mid-point between allowing businesses to function and kowtowing to neoliberalism. The approach has paid dividends: Bolivia’s GDP boomed from 91.75 billion bolivianos (BOB) in 2006, when the present government was elected, to BOB228,00 billion in 2014, according to UN data.
Ugo Tapia Arze, campaigning for the Yes vote in Cochabamba, said he thought another leader could not necessarily be trusted to continue pushing for Bolivia to get a share in the proceeds from its natural resources the way Morales has.
On May 1 2006, the MAS government seized the gas holdings of major foreign companies, giving the state a 50 percent share in oil and gas sales, or 82 percent including the share given to Bolivian national company YPFB.
For Tapia, the referendum is not a debate about the president’s popularity, but a democratic consultation on whether to make a legitimate constitutional change.
“If the vote is no, we will have to look for another leader in 2019… There are people prepared to lead the process of change,” Tapia said.
Referendum campaigning finished on Wednesday. Bolivia has a dry policy for 48 hours ahead of the vote, prohibiting the sale and consumption of alcohol to ensure that voters are “conscious of the decision they take” at the election.
A yes vote will not come as a surprise, given the popularity of the incumbent government – but many opponents will view it as a bad sign for democracy. A no vote will prompt the question: who will be Bolivia’s next leader?