BIF Special Bulletin Referendum


On 21 February Bolivia went to the polls to decide whether the constitution should be changed to allow the president and vice president to stand again in elections in 2019. Late on the evening of 23 February, some 48 hours after the polls had closed and though not all votes were yet in, the national electoral court declared a victory for the No vote by a small majority. The consolidated vote (votes within Bolivia and abroad) gave the No vote 51.3% and the Yes vote 48.70%.

National referendum to change the constitution
Evo Morales was first voted president in 2006, winning 54% of the vote.  During his first period in office, the Constituent Assembly drew up a new constitution which allows for one re-election.  Under the new rules, Morales was elected with 64% of the vote in 2009 and re-elected with 61% in 2014 for the period 2015-2020.

Aware that Morales would not be able to stand for a further period, the social movements that form the base of his support proposed that the constitution be amended to allow one further term, which would enable the government to follow through on its programme (known as Agenda 2025).  MAS representatives in the Legislative Assembly passed a law, with the required two-thirds majority, to hold a referendum to reform the constitution.

The referendum (direct vote by all those entitled to do so) sought a partial reform of one article of the constitution, Article 168, which lays down the term of president and vice president as five years, with possible re-election for a further five years.  The question put to people at the referendum was whether or not Article 168 of the constitution should be changed to allow for a second re-election of a president and vice president (in this case for the period 2020-2025).

 Thinking behind the Yes and No votes
Evo Morales and Alvaro García Linera presented their case as a ballot on their performance in government and what they have in the pipeline.  In particular, they stressed the economic (and political) stability of recent years.  The main supporters of the Yes campaign, apart from the MAS, were social movements: campesinos, interculturales, Bartolinas, workers' and miners' organisations, neighbourhood committees and various regional groupings.

Those who will have voted Yes include militants of the 'process of change', those who feel themselves to be represented by Evo ('Evo is one of us'), people from rural areas, those who see the government as providing economic stability, and those who have done well as a result of its economic policies.

The opposition came together – for the first and only time in these 10 years of MAS government – with a common purpose to prevent Evo Morales from achieving a further term in office.  Its rallying cry was 'alternancia', i.e. 'it's time for someone else'.  The opposition presented itself under the umbrella of a 'citizens' campaign', downplaying political party presence and maintaining a low profile for opposition leaders (Samuel Doria Medina, Jorge Quiroga, Rubén Costas).  Whilst the main opposition parties signed up to receive state funding for their electoral propaganda in the media, other groupings such as COMCIPO (the Potosí civic committee) were also formally recognised.  A key criticism of the government was alleged corruption, with much emphasis placed on the Fondo Indígena case (see BIF Bulletin 29).

Those who will have voted No included members of past governments (whose record with respect to privatisation, neoliberal policies, etc. has been widely called into question), the disenchanted with the MAS, those who think the Morales governments have not been sufficiently radical, and also some belonging to a new generation who have not known any president but Evo and who feel their own agendas have not been sufficiently met. There was also a racist element to the opposition campaign, notable in some of the graffiti and slogans painted on walls.

Erratic but influential polling

Opinion polls are designed to reflect the state of public opinion but, in elections they increasingly play a role in forming public opinion, or are used to substantiate particular positions.  The referendum campaign in Bolivia was no exception here; two international polling agencies working with local media outlets, Equipos MORI and Ipsos, helped generate the opposition groundswell by showing that the 'Yes' vote was far from assured. But their contradictory results also sowed confusion.  With some exceptions, the media in Bolivia was largely sympathetic to the opposition cause.
Polling is, at best, a risky venture when it is difficult to measure rural opinion (on account of the cost involved in sending pollsters off to remote communities) and impossible to measure the views of the huge Bolivian diaspora living abroad and entitled to vote.

Both MORI and Ipsos published polls in mid-January.  MORI – working with national TV network Red Uno – predicted a narrow 'Yes' victory (41% to 37%).  Ipsos – with TV channel ATB – a contrary result with the 'No' winning by 44% to 36%.  In both instances there were large numbers still undecided or unwilling to say. 

The first half of February, close to the limit when polls can still be published legally, saw three more polls.  A poll gleaned from a small sample in the four main urban centres (La Paz, El Alto, Cochabamba and Santa Cruz) was published on February 11 by a local group called Captura Consulting, suggesting a narrow 'Yes' victory (44% to 41%).  A MORI poll published a day later put the two options neck and neck at 40%, while the Ipsos poll published on February 13 predicted the 'No' option winning (41% to 40%).

A 'flash' poll published by the opposition newspaper Página Siete on 14 February, based on a very small group (600 people), showed a big win for the No vote, 57% as opposed to 36% for the Yes.

On election night, shortly after 8pm when the publication restriction was lifted, both MORI and Ipsos published their fast count polls (based on 10% of results at voting booths).  Ipsos and ATB showed the 'No' winning by 52.3% to 47.7%, and MORI by a narrower 51% to 49% margin.  It was on the basis of these, and not the official results which came 48 hours later, that the leaders of the 'No' campaign jumped the gun to declare victory.  Their tactic appears to have been to set the scene for claims of fraud if the official result went the other way.    

Campaigns and dirty tricks
Campaigning involved much painting of the streets, with colours of slogans changing between the green Yes and the red No overnight.  The Yes campaign extolled the virtues of the government's achievements, declaring 'We are all Evo', whilst the No campaign had a simple No accompanied by a small Bolivian flag, and slogans like 'Not again', 'Never again'.

As of 21 January when campaigning began in earnest, concerted attempts to discredit Evo and Álvaro and to engender a situation of uncertainty became more evident, the first time such tactics have been used so openly in Bolivia.  With no controls on social media, these played an important part in the campaign.  A key target was the corruption uncovered over a year ago in the use of the Fondo Indígena, a move that sought to discredit indígenas more widely and, by inference, Morales himself.  The other main point was to criticise the length of time Morales has been in government, arguing that he should stand down in favour of others.

The opposition campaign was characterized by a wave of insults and libellous allegations or, as Freddy Morales, correspondent in Bolivia for Telesur, called it 'gossip you get at the hairdressers'.  But together, such rumour-mongering created an underlying current of corruption and lies that the government found hard to counter. Apart from the Fondo Indígena issue, the most damaging was probably the so-called 'zapatazo'.

Opposition spokesmen brought up a relationship that Morales had had with a woman called Gabriela Zapata until 2007, including their having a child who died in infancy.  This gave rise to fabricated images in the media of the baby as now a young boy and photos of Zapata's 'evolution' which included a picture which was of a police officer and not Zapata.  Morales is supposed to have used his influence to help Zapata, who works for CAMC Engineering, a Chinese state company, to win several contracts with the Bolivian state (San Buenaventura sugar mill, the Montero to Bulo Bulo railway line, the lithium plant in Uyuni).  The relationship with Zapata, however, ended six years before she won a job at CAMC.  In fact, the company has had to pay back the US$ 23 million guarantee it gave for not fulfilling on time the agreement on the railway line.  Other false information alleged that executives at San Buenaventura had their travel to China all paid by CAMC.

Programmatic debate was almost wholly absent from the campaign.  The opposition made no proposals during the period, nor was there any serious debate of the government's proposals.  The campaign of gossip and low-intensity barbs was promoted by some well-known journalists, Carlos Valverde, Amalia Pando and Andrés Gómez. 

The climate of destabilisation and tension was further heightened in the days before the referendum by violence on the streets of El Alto.  A demonstration by parents turned violent as people tried to break their way into the town hall, setting fire to furniture and papers.  Six people were killed by the smoke as a result.  Opposition groups were swift to blame MAS supporters for the incident.

The opposition's 'citizens' campaign' appeared well-funded.  It is unclear whether these funds were provided locally or if they came from abroad.  Allegations (unproven) were made that some funding had been provided by the US National Endowment for Democracy. The government used televised programmes of the inauguration of public works in the presence of Morales and García Linera to its advantage.

The results in detail

Voting will be repeated in 25 polling booths in early March.  There was a problem with 24 booths in Santa Cruz where materials were destroyed on election day, and one in Viacha, La Paz, where the notary lost the summary certificate of election.  However, these votes, coupled with the votes from some remote parts of the country and still to come from outside Bolivia, cannot overturn the substance of the result, with the No vote winning by a narrow margin.  In the event, the Equipos MORI poll (51% No, 49% Yes) came very close to the final tally.

Turnout was high (86.66%) within Bolivia, with a low number of blank or spoiled votes (4.77% together). On the other hand, turnout was poor in voting overseas, perhaps because of distances to be travelled.

In countries like Argentina and Brazil, with large numbers of Bolivian migrants, there was a strong vote for the Yes, whilst in Spain, Italy, the USA and UK, the No vote won by substantial margins.

Nationally, the Yes vote prevailed in only three departments: La Paz, Cochabamba and Oruro, whilst the No vote won in the rest of the country.  Even though this was not an election as such, this is a very different picture from that of the October 2014 elections when Morales won in every department except the Beni.  Since then, in regional and local elections in March 2015, different groups of the opposition made important advances.

Final results will give a more detailed breakdown by department, but generally, with the apparent exception of El Alto, the No vote won in most major cities; on the other hand, the vote from rural areas and the urban periphery was largely in favour of the Yes option.  Towns like Potosí voted for the No in large numbers.  Previously a stronghold of the MAS, public opinion had been alienated due mainly to poor handling of demands by the government in 2015.

Sequels to voting
In the event the problem did not come to a head, but the opposition demand to heed the results of exit polls could have brought about major unrest.  The main leaders of the opposition (Jorge Quiroga, Samuel Doria Medina, Rubén Costas, José María Leyes, Felix Patzi, Ernesto Suárez and Luis Revilla) – in spite of their low profile during the campaign – immediately claimed victory within the three quarters of an hour after exit polls appeared at 8 p.m. on election day.  Over the two days of vote counting – itself a record in terms of speed and efficiency – there were allegations of fraud by opposition groups.  No sooner than the electoral court declared in favour of the No vote, these ceased. 

The international press tended to take its lead from the opposition camp, with headings such as: Tensions rise as Evo Morales's bid to extend presidency hangs in balance (The Guardian, 22-2-16); El referéndum por la reelección de Evo Morales divide a Bolivia (El País, Internacional, 22-2-16); Bolivian leader 'loses' fourth term bid (BBC World, 21-2-16).  The referendum was widely portrayed in terms of a region-wide retreat from 'populist' government, with the recent electoral victories cited of Mauricio Macri in Argentina and of the Venezuelan opposition.

The electoral court members, elected in July and led by Katia Uriona, have shown their lack of bias and carried out a difficult job with speed and efficiency.  Minor problems, such as the need for a more resilient server for high network traffic, will need to be dealt with before another electoral event.  Nine observer missions oversaw the referendum, itself a sign of the importance granted to the referendum internationally.  Apart from pointing to some minor incidents, they confirmed that the process was free and fair.  Levels of participation were high and Bolivians showed again maturity in carrying out their civic responsibilities.

Nevertheless, Evo Morales and the MAS have suffered a further defeat, having last year lost control of some major municipalities and departmental governorships in March, and then seen departmental and municipal statutes in highland and valley departments voted down in September.  However, 49% of the vote is still an important indication of support for Morales.

Finally, the results suggest that the country has changed significantly in the ten years since Morales became president.  Many younger voters have known no other government.  Favourable economic conditions have helped the government to retain the support of voters in the past, but this could change during more difficult economic moments.  The population is increasingly more urban and since 2006, there has been a major reduction in the numbers of people living in poverty. Consequently, people now have new worries such as the quality of public services, longstanding problems with the judicial system and corruption, and what is sometimes perceived as inaccessible government.

Implications for the future

The Morales government will continue in office for another four years, with a majority of two-thirds in the Legislative Assembly.  Over this time, it is likely to push ahead with its Agenda 2025. Plans already under way (to name but a few) include:

  • Building Bolivia as a hub with oil and gas, minerals, energy and agricultural potential. The recent discovery of a further 4 trillion cubic feet of natural gas increases Bolivia's gas reserves by 40%.
  • Industrialising raw materials and thereby adding value in the petrochemical and mineral sectors.
  • Building a railway between Santos in Brazil and Ilo in Peru.
  • Attempting to overhaul the justice system.
  • Pursuing the international campaign to regain access to the Pacific. 

Though well placed to face the economic crisis, and with plans afoot to increase public spending as a way of dynamising the economy, the sharp reduction in exports in 2015 and the fall in international prices are likely to affect people's pockets in the short-to-medium term.  Likewise, the political context in South America is now less supportive than in recent years.

The No win will have some immediate implications: 

  • There may be a readjustment of government plans to ensure that key policies are carried through.  Morales has called for a meeting of the extended cabinet for 25 February.
  • The MAS will have to choose who will stand as its candidates in the general elections of 2019.  Though there are several possible candidates, none is as charismatic or representative as Evo Morales.  Speculation as to candidates would include in particular David Choquehuanca (foreign minister, an Aymara and ideologue of the MAS) and Gabriela Montaño (currently president of the lower house in the Legislative Assembly, a young woman from Santa Cruz), whilst other possibles might include Carlos Romero (currently minister of the interior) and José Alberto 'Gringo' Gonzales (president of the Senate).
  • In spite of declarations to the contrary, the opposition might call for a recall referendum.  It is likely that in Potosí the civic committee will push for the recall of the MAS departmental governor and the city's mayor.
  • Though the opposition has worked together on the build-up to the February 2016 referendum, it is unlikely that its leaders will be able to set aside their political rivalries.  They lack a common programme (or even party-based programmes).  There is much talk of the need for generational change, and leaders like Doria Medina, Quiroga and Costas also lack nationwide appeal.  Younger leaders, such as Revilla (the mayor of La Paz), Patzi (the governor of La Paz), Leyes (the mayor of Cochabamba), Adrián Oliva (the governor of Tarija) and Soledad Chapetón (the mayoress of El Alto) are likely to emerge more onto the national stage.