Exercising democracy

So the British people have had their say. And everything looks just the same.

Tony Blair is back in with a significant majority based on the support of just a fifth of the population and everyone is saying almost with relief that we are back to politics as usual.

Well excuse me while I cast a cynical eye from afar and thank God that political life in Bolivia is different.

Election means choice

I don’t know what it has felt like in the UK, but at a distance the pretence that Britain has a democracy (ie choice in terms of policies or active participation by citizens in politics) seems a complete joke.

In Spanish, the word election and choice are the same, but choice doesn’t seem to feature any more in British elections.

The two main parties’ policies overlap on most issues, the Liberal Democrats are called an anti-war party despite supporting the war as soon as ‘our boys’ went in, and the Labour Party is now in a position to pass a whole series of laws increasing still further the power of private companies through private finance initiatives whilst diminishing citizens’ powers to hold politicians and companies to account.

Meanwhile the electorate can be ignored for another five years, except of course for those ‘pesky immigrants’ who need to be subject to further controls and impoverishment.

Need for debate

It would be overstating it to say that the situation in Bolivia, by contrast, is brilliant. Its political system is subject to corruption like many other countries, and the present Government is equally prone to favour multinational companies over the interests of its people. Taxi drivers in Cochabamba, like their counterparts in London, can be heard dismissing all politicians for being self-interested power-seekers.

But at least here, there is a proper and lively debate and an effective opposition who holds the government to account and has fundamentally different political policies (whether you agree with them or not). Moreover, on the same day as elections took place in the UK, the Congress here was voting through a law that at least looks at holding companies to account by increasing taxes on oil companies and increasing State control over the energy industry.

It has laid down a challenge to the Government who will have to decide whether to promote the law (to howls of protest from companies like British Gas) or veto it.

Meanwhile, across the country, social movements are planning major protests if steps are not taken towards nationalisation. Political protest on national issues is alive and constant here based on a realisation that democracy needs to be continually exercised on the streets and can’t be left to politicians in Congress.

Democracy needs renovation

Perhaps most significantly, there is a realisation that the democratic system here in Bolivia does not serve the majority and needs to be renovated. As a result of demands since 1995 by indigenous groups and major protests throughout 2003, the Government under President Mesa finally agreed to the formation of a Constituent Assembly that will redraw the country’s constitution.

Across the country, different groups and social movements have been actively putting forward positive proposals about how the new Constitution could tackle some of the deeply entrenched social and economic problems in Bolivia.

During the Global Week of Action, I attended a seminar where indigenous people and small-scale farmers (campesinos) came together to put forward proposals on how the Constitution could enshrine the protection of the rights of campesinos and indigenous people whilst committing the State to sign trade deals based on values on justice and solidarity.

Out on the streets of La Paz, I came across a group of highly-informed teenagers who are campaigning to ensure that the new Constitution gives young people an active role in its democracy.

There is of course a danger that the Constitution will be seen as the answer to all of Bolivia’s problems, and that a morass of proposals will produce an unwieldy and unpractical Constitution.

Moreover, there is still a great divide within the country between those who want to limit the new Constitution to tinkering with the current system to those who envisage a complete reworking of the country’s social and economic relations. Meanwhile, the push for autonomy in the Eastern state of Santa Cruz could also pre-empt the kind of State structures envisaged in the new Constitution.

Whatever the final result, though, it is going to be a lot more exciting here than it has been watching the British election.  I am sure at times, it will be messy and full of conflict, but at the same time it has the chance to allow people to actively participate in putting forward proposals about the society and country they want to live in.

I feel democracy has become an increasingly empty word in the UK. Perhaps it is time UK politicians looked outside their constituencies and looked towards Bolivia. They would have a lot to learn.



  1. Tony Blair May 7, 2005 at 4:34 pm - Reply

    What do you mean, there’s no choice in British elections? There were 61 new parties registered for this general election. If you’re disappointed in the outcome, maybe it’s time, as Brecht suggested, to elect a new people. Here’s an interesting statistic from The Independent:
    percentage of under-18s who would vote Labour (if they were allowed to vote): 75.8
    percentage of under-18s who would vote Conservative: 4.5
    And that’s why I want to see the voting age lowered from 18 to 5.

  2. Nick May 8, 2005 at 7:21 pm - Reply

    Thanks, Tony. Liked the statistic :)I think the choice is a bit more apparent than real when everyone goes into the UK election knowing that voting for any other party than the main two (and occasionally the third) will be anything other than a wasted vote – and when all the parties’ policies are targeted at a small segment of the population based in a few marginal seats.

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