- The Washington Times - Friday, August 22, 2008

COMMENTARY:

Quick quesion: When does a 63 percent election victory constitute a setback for the winner? Answer: When it happens in Bolivia.

On Sunday, Aug. 10, Bolivians - who’ve been going to the polls a lot lately - voted in one of Latin America’s strangest elections yet: a recall referendum involving the president, vice president and eight of the country’s nine prefects (governors). President Evo Morales, Bolivia’s first indigenous president - and a socialist - and Marxist theoretician Vice President Alvaro Garcia Linera easily topped the roughly 47 percent affirmative vote they needed to retain their seats, as well as the original 53.7 percent of the vote with which they were elected, with their 63 percent result.

What kept this from being an out-and-out triumph? The election victories of the prefects in Bolivia’s four eastern, natural resource-rich departments that oppose Mr. Morales and his socialist blueprint for the country. They won with between 56.3 percent and 66.6 percent support. At the same time, a majority of voters in four departments favored ousting Mr. Morales, and he narrowly missed such a judgment in a fifth department.

These results reinforced the 80 percent to 86 percent approval margins for the “autonomy” referenda held in Bolivia’s four eastern departments between May 4 and June 22.



The predictable result of the Aug. 10 vote will be even deeper division between Bolivia’s productive and prosperous eastern half and its poor, dependent, dysfunctional western half - a division that seemed at times to teeter on civil war. More political paralysis is in the forecast.

But Bolivia’s latest referendum probably succeeded in its original tactical objective: postponing, perhaps forever, a vote on Mr. Morales’ radical socialist draft constitution - under which he could be re-elected - that was pushed through late last year using cordons of military, police and vigilantes to lock out the opposition after three opposition demonstrators were killed and dozens wounded by Mr. Morales’ forces.

But how come Bolivia’s constant voting in elections and referenda isn’t yielding social peace and political reconciliation? Simple. Mr. Morales and his followers are implacably determined to impose on Bolivia a socialist model through political intimidation - and the productive and prosperous parts of the country that are the targets of his MAS Party’s socialist ambitions refuse to go along. Mr. Morales perfected his intimidation tactics during his decades as head of the coca growers’ syndicates in the Chapare region (where growing coca, the raw material of cocaine, was illegal until Mr. Morales gained power) - a job he still holds, by the way, and to which he was just re-elected while serving as the nation’s president. All the elections and referenda in the world won’t mask Mr. Morales’ fundamentally anti-democratic aims.

So, what should Bolivians and others committed to democracy - including U.S. policymakers - take away from the latest political struggles of this small, poor land-locked country in the middle of South America? Here are four lessons.

(1) Democracy is not a weapon - a win-at-any-cost way to bludgeon your opponents into submission in a winner-take-all contest. Competition and basic fairness are essential to democracy; monopoly of power and intimidation are antithetical to it.

(2) Constitutions aren’t weapons either. They should provide a basic framework for the smooth and fair functioning of democratic governance - with checks and balances that guard against abuse of power - not a blueprint to make one party’s policy ideas the law of the land forever.

(3) Regimes like Mr. Morales’ need enemies - internal ones and external ones, usually portrayed as being in cahoots - in order to cast themselves as the underdog, rally their supporters, and distract attention from their failures. No matter what the United States does, it is fated to be the enemy. We should not, therefore, blackmail ourselves into propitiating Mr. Morales’ government with continued and unmerited benefits in an attempt to avoid his fabricated accusations and threats. It won’t work - and we look weak and feeble in the process.

(4) Instead of suspending judgment - and our own faculties of observation - we and other countries committed to democracy need to recognize forthrightly, encourage and support those who are truly committed to authentic democracy and the rule of law.

By the same token, we should oppose and ostracize those, like Mr. Morales, who use mob violence and naked intimidation to try to force adoption of patently undemocratic schemes - like a draft constitution enshrining vigilante lynching as “communitarian justice.”

And we need to find more creative ways to encourage and support those who are “on the battle lines” for democracy and the rule of law - even when they have a distinctive regional base. Otherwise we risk betraying our democratic principles - and letting anti-democratic accomplices to drug trafficking like Mr. Morales consign his country to more decades of poverty, backwardness, lawlessness and mob rule.

G. Philip Hughes, a senior director at the White House Writers Group, is a former director for Latin American affairs and executive secretary of the National Security Council. From 1999 to 2006, he served as executive director of the U.S.-Bolivia Business Partnership.

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