Visiting Bolivia (part II)

Comment SharePrint

Everyone in Bolivia is focusing on the shift toward “participatory democracy,” from the previous “representative democracy.” Some embrace this change enthusiastically, while others view it warily. What is clear is that the traditional political parties have disintegrated here, as they have in many other countries in the Andean region, including Peru, Ecuador, and Venezuela.

It is also clear that new political parties are unlikely to arise anytime soon. Due to exclusion and corruption, the old system has been completely discredited. The MAS, which backs Evo Morales, is proud of its alternative organizational framework, based on linking various social movements and associations rather than forming a political party.

So where does this leave representation? Bolivia is institutionalizing a cycle which begins with protest marches, followed by negotiations with the government, and then ends in promises/governmental actions. These cycles are not necessarily new, as they played a key role in demand making in recent years. In fact, the inability of the governments of Sanchez de Lozada and Carlos Mesa to fulfill promises made during the negotiation phase led in large part to their downfall.

But with the election of Evo Morales, these dynamics have changed in meaning. Rather than arising from the opposition, these protesters and their organizations are now part of the ruling MAS, institutionalizing this protest cycle as the main means of interest intermediation. And, the nature of demands has changed. And rather than focusing on big issues of political and social inclusion, or of national redistribution of resources, these protests tend to focus on specific group or individual needs. For instance, this week the marches in La Paz involved teachers and sellers of used clothes, each wanting an improvement in their own economic situation.

This transformation of interest intermediation – due to the decline in political parties – concentrates power in the Executive branch, and in Evo Morales. Other moves by the government – including the undermining of the judiciary – have added to this effect. What Evo does with this power remains to be seen. It may allow him to address historic injustices and issues by bypassing old elite and interest group issues. But, it may also lead to new patronage networks, inefficiency, corruption, and in the end renewed frustration by those wanting to see real change in Bolivia.