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Which Way for Constitutional Reform?

A poster supporting Bolivia's constitutional reform process. (AP images)

December 06, 2007

A day after Venezuela’s electorate voted against a constitutional overhaul, President Hugo Chavez suggested the timing may not have been right for his proposals. The rejection of Chavez’s reforms raises questions about the timing—and fate—of constitutional reform in other Latin American countries, particularly in Bolivia.

Bolivia and Ecuador plan sweeping changes to their constitutions, including plans to consolidate presidential power through proposals such as eliminating term limits. While Ecuador just began the process of rewriting its constitution at the end of November, Bolivia’s constituent assembly has a December 14 deadline to approve a draft for a new constitution.

A rewrite of Bolivia’s constitution—ratified in 1967 and amended multiple times—was among President Evo Morales’ top campaign promises in 2005. The country’s first indigenous leader has billed a new constitution as a means to give more political power to his country’s Indian majority.  But the road to creating and approving a new charter has been far from smooth. The constituent assembly first convened in August 2006 with the goal of producing a document by this summer. Disagreements between the opposition and Morales’ political party Movimiento al Socialismo (MAS) created a stalemate and, when August 2007 arrived with no document approved, the two sides brokered an agreement to extend the deadline until December.

The reform process has also been marred by violence, protests, and deep divisions between social classes and regions, as an International Crisis Group analysis reports. Division deepened in August as opposition grew over moving the nation’s capital from the centrally-located city of Sucre to the highlands of La Paz, where Morales has a broader base of support. In late November, four people died during protests following approval by the constituent assembly of the charter’s framework. Strikes occurred in six of Bolivia’s nine provinces, primarily in the wealthier, lowland regions.

What lies in store for the new constitution remains to be seen. Although the outline of the draft was approved by a majority of the assembly, two-thirds of assembly members must approve the final document by the December target date before Bolivians eventually ratify it in a public vote. MAS has 142 representatives in the assembly, but the draft’s approval requires the support of 170 out of 255 legislators. Jim Schultz of Cochabamba's Democracy Center writes, “Blocking progress in the assembly seems to have been the opposition's modus operandi from the start.”

Even if the constitution does gain the assembly’s approval, the Bolivian electorate must also ratify the document in a referendum. Although a majority of Bolivians still support Morales’ performance as president, his approval ratings dropped by 10 percent in November to 52 percent. In response to discord caused by the reform policy, Morales has called for a referendum to decide whether he should remain in office.

President Rafael Correa of Ecuador may not face the same challenges as his Bolivian counterpart in ushering in a rewrite of his county’s 1998 constitution. Correa’s Alianza Pais gained control of 80 out of 130 constituent assembly seats last month. The assembly dissolved the opposition-controlled congress, which Correa has called a “sewer of corruption.” 

A panel (Windows Media Player required) at AS/COA’s 7th Annual Latin America Conference discussed Venezuela’s recent attempts at constitutional reform. President Correa discussed constitutional reform during a September speech (Windows Media Player required) at AS/COA.