In 2005 the first indigenous person was elected president of Bolivia, and he soon embarked on fulfilling a commitment to a new constitution through a constituent assembly. The assembly comprised 255 members (who could not be ministers, members of parliament, public officials, or public servants), elected in 2006. Candidates had to be sponsored by a political party or citizens’ organization or represent an indigenous group. In the seventy geographical constituencies the three persons with the highest votes were elected—but if they all belonged to the same party, that party could get only two members, and the highest-scoring candidate from another party was elected. And there were nine broader constituencies from each of which five candidates were elected. The highest polling party got two, and the next three parties got one seat each. There were gender-distribution requirements for each set of candidates, but these were not designed to ensure a certain proportion of women members. (In the end, about one- third were women.) Smaller groups were excluded by this process. The president’s party (the Movimiento al Socialismo, or Movement for Socialism, known as MAS) had a slight majority.
The constituent assembly sat in the old capital, Sucre. There was a separate parliament sitting in La Paz. The constituent assembly was given from six months to one year for its task, but had to extend that deadline by several months, mostly because approving the procedural rules took seven months. (The main problem involved the voting requirements for decisions on articles of the new constitution.) The assembly decided on a two-thirds vote, plus a referendum.
The constituent assembly law provided that members could express themselves in their native languages. The plenary sessions of the assembly were to be public.
Every member had to belong to one of twenty-one committees on substantive issues, each reflecting the membership of the constituent assembly. The committees had the power to collect the views of the people, including to travel around the country. Committees whose recommendations overlapped held joint meetings to resolve problems. The committees were slow to begin work. However, at least some of the members did travel and collect views, and later they submitted their suggestions to the public. There were some accounts of enthusiastic public participation.
A committee of the constituent assembly was to produce a draft from the suggestions of the committees. However, a draft prepared (somewhat secretly) by MAS was released in November 2007. A month later a draft was adopted at a meeting that had to be held away from Sucre, where there was unrest. Opposition members were largely absent, and the votes in support were not quite two-thirds.
In February 2008 MAS sent the draft to the congress and asked it to submit for a referendum a question about the maximum size for landholdings; this was a device to get the constitution adopted. No appeal to the constitutonal tribunal was possible because the congress had voted to impeach several judges and they had resigned, leaving no quorum. This was the second referendum on a specific point; at the beginning of the process there had been one on regional autonomy, which the areas dominated by nonindigenous groups wanted. This had been lost.
After the draft was adopted the whole document was submitted to the people. It was adopted, the people voting for and against in about the same proportions as they had voted for MAS or the opposition in 2006.
The whole process was rather acrimonious and divisive; it was marked by manipulation and illegal decision-making, as well as by considerable enthusiasm on the part of the indigenous groups.