Democratization in Bolivia briefly after 1952 and more persistently after 1982 did not create inclusive political institutions. For instance the 1955 Educational Reform code passed by the MNR was not designed to empower indigenous people but to assimilate and control them.
But something remarkable then happened in 2006. For the first time in its history Bolivia elected an indigenous president Evo Morales. A former coca farmer and union leader, Morales’s party MAS (Movement Towards Socialism in English) formed initially as a movement outside of the existing political system. They forged a road to power by effectively harnessing people’s resentment against the traditional political system and using mass collective action to force the system to change. When they got to power they spearheaded a re-writing of the constitution to make Bolivia a “Plurinational” State, recognizing the indigenous people for the first time and they introduced many measures meant to empower them and other discriminated minorities, particularly women. Central to this project were changes in the educational system with the new Avelino Siñani-Elizardo Pérez Education Law, named after the founder of a famous school for indigenous peoples, spearheading a mass change in the way the education system works to promote a more inclusive society. This includes the opening of three new indigenous universities.
The MAS is not simply a party of trade unionists or indigenous peoples. The vice president Álvaro García Linera is a former Marxist guerilla. As well as former guerrillas and left-wing groups, the MAS includes intellectuals and parts of the middle class. In consequence, their policy platform has included not just the promotion of the disempowered, but also nationalization, particularly of foreign owned natural resources, and also attempts to develop an industrial policy.
One might be skeptical about whether or not some of these measures will lead to more inclusive institutions and to good economic outcomes, and we are indeed very skeptical (as our discussion of industrial policy here and our discussion of Argentine nationalization here illustrate).
But there is also a different way of looking at it: perhaps these distortionary policies are inevitable when the governing party is a broad coalition difficult to hold together — and starting on their weak institutions. Perhaps President Morales is adopting these policies to satisfy the many constituencies that are part of this coalition (and of course to hold onto power).
Yet the possibility that the MAS constitutes a broad coalition of the type we analyzed in Why Nations Fail suggests the possibility that there may at last be a real institutional transition from extractive towards inclusive institutions in Bolivia. More evidence for this is that though some criticize Morales for wanting to emulate Hugo Chavez, presidential term limits have not been dismantled in Bolivia as they have in Venezuela.
More importantly, because he relies on this broad coalition, Morales cannot do whatever he likes — and perhaps as a result, the political equilibrium is shifting and the distribution of political power is becoming much more equal. For example, popular protests emerged over the new system introduced by the constitution for the appointment of top justices in 2011. Though the justices were to be chosen by a popular vote, the MAS controlled the nomination of the potential justices in the national congress (previously the judges were simply chosen by congress so the new system is an improvement on the old). The result was a mass campaign to “anula tu voto” (cast a blank ballot) to limit what the MAS could do. The next photo, taken in November 2011, shows some of the graffiti which suddenly appeared everywhere in La Paz. In the referendum over 60% of ballots cast were spoiled or blank, signaling how Morales has started to function in an environment in which he is more constrained than previous Bolivian presidents.
Though we are very much at the beginning of the process and things can change quickly, there are now some signs that the type of broad coalition that led to institutional change elsewhere in the world may have started forming in Bolivia. That is an exciting prospect, one for which it is perhaps worth putting up with some showy nationalizations.