Latin leftists reshape democracy

Bolivians vote Sunday on the fate of President Evo Morales and other top officials.

Jorge Silva/Reuters
A woman walks past a wall promoting President Evo Morales ahead of Sunday's recall vote.
Jorge Silva
A woman protested Wednesday with antigovernment and pro-autonomy groups in Tarija, Bolivia.
SOURCE: Comparative Constitutions Project/Rich Clabaugh–STAFF
Rich Clabaugh–STAFF

In a high-stakes vote, Bolivians will decide Sunday whether populist President Evo Morales gets to keep his job.

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.

But it's likely to lead to more of an impasse, says Roberto Laserna, a political scientist in Cochabamba, Bolivia.

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.

Most of the referendums in Ecuador, Venezuela, and Bolivia have been linked directly or indirectly to new constitutions that leaders in each country are trying to create.

From a historic perspective, such constitutional reform is nothing new. Of the 800-some charters written worldwide since 1789, nearly half have come from this region, says Mr. Elkins, according to his own count.

Just a tool to consolidate power?

Chávez critics, however, say that he is just out to consolidate his own power. During a referendum attempt in December – which he lost – he proposed 69 new amendments to the nation's Constitution, which had most recently been overhauled in 1999.

It would have, among many things, abolished term limits for presidents.

A modified Constitution, via referendum vote, was the chosen route in Venezuela, though many of the amendments could have been passed through other mechanisms – likely because it's the fastest route.

"Referendums are used in these countries as an instrument of rapid refounding of nations," says Elsa Cardozo, an international relations professor at Metropolitan University in Caracas, Venezuela. "Institutions take a long time."

But referendums, particularly when used for constitutional reform, are also implemented because leaders have little choice.

The "outsider" status of Chávez, Morales, and Ecuador's leftist president, Rafael Correa, helped these leaders get elected, but can pose a problem when it comes time to govern.

In Ecuador, public distrust in political parties helped Mr. Correa coast to victory in 2006 as an outsider and proponent of change. But he took office without allies in Congress.

In such cases, coalition-building is not always feasible.

Instead, Correa moved toward a new Constitution, which was approved by a Constituent Assembly last month.

The charter needs to be approved in a referendum at the end of September.

Using the referendum is becoming more popular in the region, particularly among neopopulists who utilize the media to reach the masses.

But the trend has some drawbacks, observers say.

Drawbacks of the referendum trend

Going directly to the people can eliminate representation of the people – one of democracy's checks-and-balances.

"Repeated votes in favor of the president, whether they are elections for public office or referenda on elements of his reform program, provide a president with a constantly refreshed mandate that can lead him to conclude he is authorized to implement his entire agenda without concessions to the opposition," says Shelley McConnell, visiting assistant professor of government at Hamilton College in New York. "Particularly where the president is a neopopulist, this can invite a kind of tyranny of the voting majority."

When institutions are strong, however, many believe referendums can serve to strengthen democracy.

"It's about returning to the people the ability to reject or approve laws," says Margarita Lopez Maya, a history professor at Central University of Venezuela in Caracas. "The referendum is a complement to the whole of institutions to improve the quality of democracy, not to substitute it."

Jose Orozco contributed to this report from Caracas, Venezuela.

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