Referendum on a Vice President?

"Gaso-Linerazo". Grafitti in central Cochabamba

Dario Kenner, La Paz

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Vice President Álvaro Garcia Linera says he would be ‘happy’to contest a potential recall referendum and would continue to work for the Bolivian people should a referendum be called in mid 2012, when Bolivia´s population could decide whether he should continue as Vice President until the 2014 general elections.

This was in response to the call at the end of April by one of the indigenous social movements, the National Council of Ayllus and Markas of Qullasuyu (CONAMAQ), for a vote on Garcia Linera´s mandate. A demand also made in January, following the gasolinazo– the measure passed on 26 December 2010 that immediately cut fuel subsidies leading to huge increases in petrol prices (73%) and diesel prices (83%) overnight.

Massive popular protests throughout Boliviain the last days of December forced the government to reverse the measure. However prices, mainly of food stuffs, have still not gone down to their level prior to the gazolinazo and inflation has been high in the first few months of 2011. As well as blaming Garcia Linera for the gasolinazo CONAMAQ also claims that he is deepening an extractive model of development, while indigenous peoples are calling for a model of living well (Vivir Bien), in harmony with nature. They argue that the government is concentrating on the exploitation of minerals, oil and gas (which are the basis of the Bolivian economy inherited from previous governments) rather than addressing agricultural production and food security in rural areas.

The main trade union confederation, Central Obrera Boliviana (COB) has also called for a recall referendum, saying that Garcia Linera had shown a lack of respect for their organisation during their protests in April of this year, when they demanded wage increases. The Constitution states that an elected official can have a recall referendum called if 15% of the eligible voting population signs the petition. It can only take place half way through the mandate.

The government has dismissed the demands of CONAMAQ and the COB as a politically motivated act aimed at destabilising the government and the process of change. However, prior to Evo and the Movement Towards Socialism (MAS) being elected in December 2005 it was part of the popular mobilisations on the streets with CONAMAQ and the COB that began with the Water War in 2000. During the first Morales government (2006-2009) both the COB and CONAMAQ marched to pressure for the new Constitution to be passed in 2009 and to defend the government from repeated, and often violent, attacks orchestrated by right wing elites mainly in the east ofBolivia.

Garcia Linera was first voted in as Vice President along with President Evo Morales in 2005 with 53.7% of the vote. In August 2008 Morales and Garcia Linera resoundingly won a recall referendum with 67% of the vote when the population confirmed their mandate to continue. In the December 2009 election they were re-elected with 64% of the vote.

So how can we interpret these recent events? Whilst it would be premature to speculate on the results of a potential recall referendum in a years’ time, which might not even happen, the CONAMAQ and COB demands represent a signal for the government of what might be in store for them in the future.

If, and it is a big if, other movements and unions were to join the call for the referendum either now or at some future moment, it could pose a problem for the MAS government. For example, in February of this year the Federation of Neighbourhood Committees in El Alto (FEJUVE) also briefly called for a recall referendum of Garcia Linera, as they claimed he was responsible for high prices of basic necessities following the gasolinazo. El Alto is a stronghold for the MAS but mobilised to strongly reject the gasolinazo.

Álvaro García Linera

Whilst the government has dismissed the demand for the recall referendum, criticism should always be a fundamental part of a process of change. Ideally this criticism should be constructive and in order to deepen the process of change. However, this is not always the case. In its marches and strikes in April the COB was very aggressive and its demands for a 15% pay rise (the government had offered 10%) despite the fact that over 70% of the population do not receive a fixed salary looked out of touch with the reality of the majority of Bolivians. Also there were rumours that the leadership of the COB acted in the way that they did because they wanted to be re-elected in upcoming internal elections.

The reaction of the main social movements to the COB salary demands illustrated different interpretations of the future direction of the process of change. This could be important if there are more protests in the future because these social movements form the backbone of the government’s support. Most media reports stated that the coalition of the five biggest social movements declared that it was ready to march against the COB blockades and strikes. Together these rural movements represent over three million indigenous peoples and campesinos, through agrarian unions. Formed in 2003 the Unity Pact*, as the coalition is known, did a lot to facilitate the election of the MAS in 2005 through continuous mobilisations alongside urban movements that contributed to the fall of two neo-liberal governments.

However, it was not all of the Unity Pact that denounced the COB. The statements that came out in the name of the Unity Pact were from Roberto Coraite, Executive Secretary of Bolivia´s biggest campesino social movement the Confederation of Bolivian Campesino Workers Unions (CSUTCB). However CONAMAQ is also part of the Unity Pact and not only refused to march against the COB protests, but also backed the call for the recall referendum of García Linera. The Unity Pact is a mix of movements some of which are much closer to the government than others. But it is not accurate to say that all of Bolivia´s rural social movements either defended or supported the government position over the conflict with the COB. As ever, it is more complex than that.

At the end of May the recall referendum is not being talked about as much as before, but the question remains; will Morales and the MAS government listen to and respond to this signal? The government is still dealing with the political and economic repercussions of the gasolinazo. At several meetings I have attended in the past few months I have heard social movement leaders, regardless of how close they are to the government, blame García Linera for the gasolinazo. These leaders are also careful to make clear they still wholeheartedly support President Morales. So far Garcia Linera is taking more of the political flak because he was the actual person who announced the measure on 26 December while Morales was visitingVenezuela.

There are rumours that if the government had not reversed the measure on 31 December the massive popular protests that rocked the country would have continued and could have potentially brought down the government. The whole episode has sparked intense debate about who is in charge of and the direction of the process of change. In this scenario it is crucial for the MAS government to listen to these kinds of signals and aim to resolve conflicts like the one with the COB in early April as early on as possible.

This article is useful for background on the gasolinazo link

Billboard´s with "Govern by Obeying the People" started appearing after Morales reversed the gasolinazo due to popular pressure

* The Unity Pact formed in 2003 and is a coalition of the five main rural social movements that represents millions of Bolivians. They are the: Confederation of Bolivian Campesino Workers Unions (CSUTCB), National Confederation of Native Indigenous Peasant Women “Bartolina Sisa” (CNMCIOB BS), Confederation of Intercultural Communities of Bolivia (CSCIB), Confederation of Bolivian Indigenous Peoples (CIDOB) and the National Council of Ayllus and Markas of Qullasuyu (CONAMAQ).

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