Mesa's on the ropes
bolivia | by Miguel Centellas | 09 Mar, 2004 at 12:32 PM | comments (33) | trackback (0)

For the first time in twenty years of democratic history, Bolivia's facing the harsh realities of presidential politics. For the past two decades, Bolivia resembled a parliamentary system, where every president was supported by a solid legislative majority. Bolivia overcame the governability problem inherent in presidential democracy (read Juan Linz on this subject). In short, Mesa's more isolated politically than ever before.

Now, the executive vs. legislative conflict is at a head. And it doesn't matter how much Mesa thinks he's got a popular mandate ("the people put me in power!"). Because the legislators also have a popular mandate from a proportional representation (PR) electoral system, no less. Welcome to checks & balances.

Mesa's been challenged by the cruceño business class, the COB, and MAS & NFR on the tax issue. Now MIR & ADN joined the legislative opposition block. Meanwhile, Mesa faces another dilemma: his gas minister, Álvaro Ríos, just resigned. It's indicative of a broader crisis in Mesa's cabinet rumored in the wings.

Ríos resigned after MAS threatened to censure him for his negotiations w/ the oil & gas transnationals — MAS accuse him of "negotiating" rather than "dictating" terms to the multibillion investors. Still, Ríos was tackling the oil & gas transnationals, even to the point of preparing international litigation in defense of the Bolivia state's right to impose new taxes.

There's also talk of reducing the number of ministries by five, as a signal to parliament & voters that Mesa's serious about austerity measures. The hope's that this reduction will prompt parliament to approve Mesa's economic stimulus package.

And here's where we see the logic of presidential democracy at work. Municipal elections are around the corner. This means that every party's an incentive to block the president, blame him for failures, and campaign on a "turn the rascals out" platform in municipal elections — seen as a post-October watermark test for the political parties.

If Mesa remains in office through 2007, as he now plans. He'll face more & more of this type of executive-legislative conflict throughout his term. Especially if he tries to remain an independent. His best hope just might be to return to MNR (no easy task after his October desertion), to build a multiparty coalition similar to Goni's.

" comments

Was Mesa really part of MNR? I noticed during the campaign that he would never hold up the "V" sign with his fingers (one of the symbols of the MNR). Even with all the MNR top officials, Goni, Sanchez Berzain, etc. holding up their hand during campaign events, Mesa would never do the same. Maybe I am wrong..but my point is, I don't think he had broad support within the party or even was a party militante.

If (hopefully not "when") there are further social and political unrest, I think this would fall entirely on the shoulders of the "traditional" political parties. Why wouldn't I blame the MAS, COB, etc? Because they have been using these tactics and threats as long as I can remember and we know what to expect. But the MNR, MIR and NFR have the responsibility to the country to support the President in this time of transition and difficulty. At least Mesa is presenting realistic solutions, however difficult it may be as an independent.

Again, I do not know how much support Mesa has among the middle class, I have not been in Bolivia since September. But I would venture to guess that the majority of the middle class, not directly affected by the resignation of Goni (i.e. party loyalists who lost their jobs), are tired of blockades, marches. They just want to move forward. I, for one, admire Mesa and from what I can tell simply by reading the news, he has what's best for Bolivia in mind.

Yes, I understand that politics are politics and what you mentioned about the municipal elections makes sense. But at this point in history, the parties need to regain some type of credibility and support Mesa.

Posted by eduardo | March 9, 2004 01:03 PM

Mesa was never a "formal" MNR member, true. But it was common knowledge that he "leaned" in that direction. He was, still, an independent when Goni asked him to join him as running mate to help the ticket. It worked, MNR beat NFR in the election.

Of all the parties in parliament, MNR has most solidly stood behind Mesa. It's the only significant party still supporting him today. But, despite it's large legislative block (about 1/3 of each chamber), it doesn't give Mesa the majority he needs. He needs MIR & ADN, at least.

I think most Bolivians (of all classes) are tired of blockades & marches. And Mesa has some support across social classes. Many in the middle class respect him, even if they think him an opportunist. The lower classes respect him, even if they know he's just another jailon politician. Mesa's years as a news anchor gave him this respectability. It, and his silver tongue, are about all he has left (the MNR is supporting him, but grudgingly).

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