Latin leftists reshape democracy
Bolivians vote Sunday on the fate of President Evo Morales and other top officials.
In a high-stakes vote, Bolivians will decide Sunday whether populist President Evo Morales gets to keep his job.Skip to next paragraph
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It's the latest in a string of popular votes called for by Latin America's new crop of leftist leaders whose reforms have brought a sense of inclusion to the poor and, some say, strengthened democracy. But others say it reverses the region's democratic gains. By bringing votes directly to the people, leaders are bypassing checks and balances and centralizing power in their own hands.
"There is a cascade of reform movements, and there is no doubt that Ecuador, Bolivia, and Venezuela are inspired by what is going on in each other's countries," says Zachary Elkins, an assistant professor of government at the University of Texas at Austin. "What is common to all these revisions is more power to the president." Since Mr. Morales took office as Bolivia's first indigenous president in January 2006, his efforts to "refound" the country with a new Constitution have been stalled by an opposition that favors the market-friendly status quo.
In a bid to end the Andean country's increasingly tense political stalemate, Morales has called for a recall referendum this Sunday. Citizens will decide whether he and a group of opposition governors will stay in office.
The politics of the referendums have been, in some cases, the outcome of a wedge grown larger as Latin America seeks a new direction, away from the elites who have ruled for centuries.
In Bolivia, Sunday's referendum is the clearest sign of how irreconcilable differences are since Morales has sought a new Constitution, which was approved by a Constituent Assembly in December but has led to clashes and riots and still needs to be accepted in a national referendum.
Bolivia's growing rift
Morales's opposition, led by a group of governors in the eastern provinces, has balked at many of the constitutional measures, including strengthening the role for the president and increased state-control in the economy.
In dissent, four provinces have held nonbinding referendums since May calling for more local autonomy.
Morales, observers say, is hoping that a win on Sunday will embolden his mandate.
At least some of the governors, including the head of Santa Cruz, which was the first province to vote on autonomy, are expected to win.
"I think that the referendum is a sign of how democracy has weakened in Bolivia, and the event will further weaken democracy because it is moving the political forces away from dialogue and compromise, and toward radicalization," says Mr. Laserna. "A referendum is a black-or-white situation, where everyone is expected to take sides. It wipes away the gray, where compromise is possible."
For those who have the opportunity to vote, however, the referendum can embolden their sense of belonging.
In Venezuela, which has held four since President Hugo Chávez took office in 1999 and is generally considered at the head of today's referendums politics, Fernando Sangronis, a security guard who supports Mr. Chávez, says Venezuelans have the right to express their opinions directly. "There is no greater democracy than to give people the authority of decision-making," he says.