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Bolivia at the Crossroads: The December Elections

Bolivia at the Crossroads: The December Elections

Bogotá/Brussels: After the fall of two presidents in as many years, and intensifying social protest, Bolivia is verging on national disintegration. Unless the 18 December elections produce a new government committed to major reforms and national reconciliation, escalation of social and political conflict is a serious risk. Whatever the poll result, the international response must be cautious and constructive.

Bolivia at the Crossroads: The December Elections,* the latest report from the International Crisis Group, says that while the elections are an opportunity to begin to tackle deep social, ethnic and economic issues, they are likely to bring their own problems, and that a heavy responsibility lies on both domestic and international actors if stability is to be maintained.

The leading presidential candidates, Evo Morales and Jorge Quirogo, personify the bitter struggle between poor, indigenous and business-oriented, elite power centres. The latest polls give indigenous champion Morales a slight lead over former President Quiroga, but neither is likely to win a majority, which would leave the Congress – also to be chosen on 18 December – to decide the winner. Its decision is likely to be greeted by more and possibly violent protest, especially if Morales wins the popular vote but is snubbed by the likely more conservative legislature.

“The international community, especially the U.S. and Brazil, must support the outcome of the election and focus on promoting areas of common interest”, says Markus Schultze-Kraft, Crisis Group’s Andes Project Director. “This is especially crucial if Morales is elected. Washington is worried about his stand on coca growing, which challenges its drugs policy, and his friendship with Hugo Chavez, but it will need to tread carefully lest it drive him completely into the arms of the Venezuelan president”.

Bolivia’s political parties and citizens groups should focus on core policy issues, such as hydrocarbon management, job creation, real inclusion of the indigenous majority, and poverty reduction, while making clear that the unity of the Bolivian nation-state is non-negotiable. The new government and Congress have to lay the groundwork for a constituent assembly and a referendum on regional autonomy, both slated for mid-2006. If there is buy-in from all sides, these could form the foundation for moving Bolivia toward democratic stability and socio-economic progress. If there is no negotiated consensus, the country could collapse.

“Domestic and international actors need to brace for the election results and the social fallout that may follow”, says Alain Deletroz, Crisis Group’s Latin America Program Director. “That means casting aside individual interests and focusing on supporting the new government, or Latin America’s poorest country will lose its only shot at peace”.

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