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Referendum in Bolivia: test for democracy

The Bolivian people will make their opinion known on a change to the constitution in a referendum on 21 February. Leiden University organised a symposium on the referendum on 11 February. The aim of the change is to allow President Evo Morales to remain in power until 2025.

Conference on the referendum

Dr Soledad Valdivia, lecturer in Latin America Studies: ‘If Morales does not get a majority in favour of the change to the constitution, he will not be able to continue with the course he has been following.' Valdivia organised a conference in Leiden on 11 February in Leiden about the Bolivian referendum and its political implications.

Indigenous people lack power

Evo Morales, president of Bolivia

In 2006 Morales was the focus of worldwide attention when he became the first indigenous president of Bolivia. Since the arrival of the Spanish in the 16th century, this South American country has been ruled by Europeans and their descendents (criollos). Valdivia: ‘Morales is strengthening the social, cultural and economic rights of the native Indian population that are in the majority in the country. Economic growth has been exceptionally high for a long time, up to 5.5%, and poverty in the country has declined sharply. All this has made Morales enormously popular among the poor.'

Wave of left-wing leaders

Morales gained international support among other left-wing leaders who have been in power in different South American countries over the past 15 years. President Hugo Chávez of Venezuela was a particularly enthusiastic supporter of Morales' reforms. Other exponents of the so-called 'pink tide', the wave of democratically elected left-wing leaders in South America, were Rafael Correa in Ecuador, Cristina Fernández-de Kirchner in Argentina and Dilma Rousseff in Brazil. But Chávez died in 2013, and as a result of collapsing economies and increasing corruption, others have had to make way for liberal leaders, or find their position weakened. 

Dr Soledad Valdivia

More and more referenda

Referenda have been held with increasing frequency in the region over the past two decades. Some of these, as in Venezuela, Ecuador and Bolivia, served to extend the presidential term. 'There are two possible views here,' in Valdiva's opinion. 'According to some critics, this is an unaceptable tool in the hands of politicians to manipulate citizens and gain political power. According to the other view, a referendum is a valuable democratic instrument. Uruguyan political science expert David Altman defends referenda as an instrument of direct democracy.' 

Not a foregone conclusion

A negative result for the constitutional change in Bolivia could mean that Morales joins the list of left-wing leaders in Latin America whose days are numbered, and there is no alternative native candidate waiting in the wings. A positive result would make him the exception, who would be in power for the next twenty years.  But the referendum is not a foregone conclusion. Twenty years is a long time to be in power, and that gives some people cause for doubt, including some of Morales' supporters. One day the polls show a slight lean in favour of the NO camp, and the next day the YES camp is ahead. Around 20% of the voters are undecided. 

Valdivia: ‘The academic world is waiting with bated breath.’ 

Conference 'Referendum in Bolivia: Test for democracy?'

11 February 2016
15.00-17.00 hrs
P.N. van Eyckhof 2, room 04

Prof. David Altman
Dr Ton Salman
Dr Soledad Valdivia Rivera

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