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Referendum and Constituent Assembly: Departmental Autonomies in Bolivia

Fernando Mayorga Ugarte

In July 2, 2006 a national referendum on departmental (provincial) autonomies was held as a part of the political decentralization process of Bolivian State and as an institutional response to a severe political crisis and an intense social confliction. The inclusion of institutions of semi-direct democracy in the text of the Political Constitution of the State in February 2004 -referendum, constituent assembly and citizen legislative initiative- allowed political actors to process social demands and conflicts within the framework of representative democracy. This referendum has a binding character upon a Constituent Assembly whose members were elected on the same day. Nevertheless, the results of both electoral processes have generated a very complex context for deliberating and including a departmental autonomies system in the new constitutional text that must be approved until August 2007. The NOT answer obtained more than the half of the valid votes of national account, although YES won in four of the nine departments of the country, opening the possibility of interpreting the results in different ways. The vote for NOT was promoted by the governing party -Movement Towards Socialism (MAS)- that, in addition, obtained most of seats in Constituent Assembly, whereas YES was supported by parliamentary opposition headed by Social and Democratic Power (PODEMOS), second electoral force, and civic and regional organizations.

Although the law that summoned the referendum defines its national character, in several articles establishes that a regime of autonomies for departmental governments will be applicable, immediately after the promulgation of the new Political Constitution, in those departments where the YES answer won by simple majority of votes. To this duality of interpretations on the binding character of the results -national or departmental level- another debate on autonomy has started, since the governing party -winner of both referendum and elections for Constituent Assembly- supports a proposal that includes other proposals of territorial autonomy -mainly, indigenous and regional autonomies- in some cases opposed to departmental autonomies. In sum, the referendum on departmental autonomies -far from solving the problem- has transferred its solution to the Constituent Assembly, putting at risk the democratic legitimacy of its decisions, since the new Political Constitution must respond to demands and proposals of diverse political and social actors. Besides these ups and downs, this experience of citizen participation in decisional process is an example of the positive impact of an institutional reform in the strengthening of democratic legitimacy and the effectiveness of political institutions.

 

Key words: Democracy; Governability; Citizen Participation; Referendum; Autonomy; Departments; Bolivia

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