There is a famous anarchist saying that "If voting changed anything they’d have banned it by now."
It is a saying that seemed to resonate here during recent protests when countless people I talked to blamed the crisis on politicians who "sell our country for personal interests." There seemed little confidence in politicians in Congress solving the economic and social divisions that Bolivia faces
Yet strangely, the promise of elections following the resignation of President Mesa seems to quickly bring about calm after the stormy protests that rocked La Paz last month. Various social movements even started moving their focus to demanding early elections.
Finally on Monday, after what seemed like a long period of very pointless arguing, Congress set a date for elections to be held in December 2005. They also timetabled elections for the new Constituent Assembly and the referendum for autonomy for July 2006. The latter responds directly to demands from the Eastern province of Santa Cruz for autonomy and to the mainly rural and indigenous demands from the Altiplano for a new Constitution.
It seems the social movements will now fight to ensure that their issues are taken forward and discussed during the election campaign: Constituent Assembly, Autonomy, Nationalisation of Gas & Oil, Public and Accountable Provision of Basic Services like Water and Trial of those responsible for deaths in protests during 2003.
Meanwhile, the power struggle will increasingly shift to the radio waves, as candidates battle it for seats in Congress and for the position as President. It looks like the race will mainly split between three candidates (Jorge Quiroga, Samuel Moria Dorina and Eva Morales) but essentially it will be a power struggle between left and right (the first 2 candidates representing largely the right). Unlike the UK, the two sides will present very different visions of a Bolivia, visions that reflect the divisions caused by many years of economic policies that have created great inequality in Bolivia.
In the last elections, Evo Morales from the main ‘left’ party (Movimiento a Socialismo) and a charismatic leader of the Coca Growers (Cocaleros) nearly won, causing shudders amongst governments like the US who during the election threatened to withdraw aid if "Evo" won as well as from many, mainly middle and upper class, Bolivians who feared his election would lead to economic isolation.
Currently polls show him behind in third place, and it is hard to tell how the recent protests will play out for him as his moderate position (he didn’t call for nationalisation) led to attacks and accusations of "treachery" from many in the left, whilst from the right he is being held solely responsible for the economic difficulties the weeks of protests caused.
However there are senses in which the proverb that elections aren’t where change happens remains very true. For the big decisions are going to be taken following votes for autonomy and the new Constituent Assembly in July 2006. Unlike the general elections, they are decisions which involve reforming the nature of Bolivia’s State and its democracy. The aim is to make Bolivian politicians more accountable and representative of the diversity of Bolivia, but also to address the structural inequalities that have led large numbers of Bolivians to feel excluded. But the views on how this can be achieved vary immensely and will undoubtedly be fought over very hard.
Moreover, the task of addressing the vast economic inequality in Bolivia, will challenge even the most inspired and astute of governments. On the one side you have powerful economic interests who have dominated politics here who will fight hard to keep control. On the other side, you have increasingly militant groups of campesinos (farmers), indigenous groups, impoverished residents of El Alto who are determined to ensure redistribution of wealth and power. For them, nationalisation of gas is a symbol of regaining control of their resources.
Behind both groups lies an international community, in particular governments like the UK and the US, that exercises control over Bolivia’s economy and politics through their dominance of institutions like the IMF, the World Bank and the WTO and through their ownership of key strategic resources like Bolivia’s gas and oil.
Two examples from the last week illustrate the difficulty Bolivians have in exercising their own sovereignty. The first is the debate in the future running of La Paz and El Alto’s water utility. Bolivia is trying to come to a mutual agreement with the French water company, Suez to end its contract, but Suez is undermining negotiations by threatening to sue the Bolivian government under an international tribunal. Meanwhile institutions like the IMF and the German government are insisting that the new water utility must be a public/private partnership against the wishes of resident groups in El Alto who want a public and socially accountable water utility.
The second example is the ongoing debate on gas and oil. The Spanish ambassador last week said that Bolivia’s new "Hydrocarbons law" threatened future investment because it changed rules that needed to be respected under "investment" agreements between Bolivia and Spain. Meanwhile, oil and gas companies have taken their first steps towards taking Bolivia to international tribunal for "illegal" changes to their contracts.
The political and economic power of these outside players constrains the decisions Bolivia makes, and make the struggle for justice within Bolivia much harder. Bolivians will find it hard to change their situation until they can also exercise power in these powerful institutions and governments. Unfortunately, neither Repsol, the Spanish Government, the IMF, Suez nor the WTO are candidates during the upcoming election.