GOVERNMENT AND POLITICS
Political System: Bolivia is a unitary democratic republic, empowered by the revised constitution of 1994. Similar to the United States, Bolivia has executive, legislative, and judicial branches of government. The directly elected president serves a five-year term and appoints an executive cabinet. Traditionally, the president has been a strong executive, responsible for foreign diplomacy, setting economic policy, and commanding the armed forces, among other duties. The president cannot be reelected to successive terms.
The bicameral Congress consists of a 27-member Senate and a 130-member Chamber of Deputies and is limited to debating and approving legislation initiated by the executive. Congress meets annually for a session of 90 working days. At the request of the executive or a majority of its members, Congress may expand its annual session to 120 days or convene extraordinary sessions to debate specific legislation. Each of the nine departments elects three senators. About one-half of the members serving in the Chamber of Deputies are directly elected, while the other representatives gain their seats through indirect party nominations. All members of Congress serve five-year terms.
Bolivia’s judicial system consists of a Supreme Court, district (or superior) courts in each of the nine departments, and provincial and local courts to try minor cases. The 12 Supreme Court justices, nominated by the president and confirmed by the Congress, serve non-renewable 10-year terms. The Supreme Court is divided into four chambers of three justices each, with two chambers dealing with civil cases, another dealing with criminal cases, and the fourth with administrative, social, and mining cases. The superior courts hear appeals of lower-court decisions and review the application of Bolivian law. The Supreme Court hears only cases involving exceptional circumstances. A Constitutional Tribunal handles appeals on constitutional issues. Both the superior courts and the Supreme Court have the right to alter the sentences or negate the decisions of lower courts. Although the judiciary is meant to be independent of outside influence, political pressure and judicial corruption have long been present in Bolivia. Reforms in 1998 added several components to the judicial system in an effort to curtail corruption, including an independent judicial council to oversee and investigate the conduct of judges and a public defender program.
Administrative Divisions: In 1989 the Congress divided Bolivia into its present administrative form, consisting of nine departments. In descending order of population size, the departments are: La Paz, Santa Cruz, Cochabamba, Potosí, Chuquisaca, Oruro, Tarija, Beni, and Pando.
Provincial and Local Government: Bolivia’s nine regional departments are divided into 94 provinces, which are further divided into 312 municipalities. The highest executive authority in a department is the prefect—roughly comparable to a state governor in the United States. As a result of constitutional reforms ratified in 1995, in December 2005 the nine departmental prefects were directly elected by voters, replacing the previous system of presidential appointment of prefects. Sub-prefects administer provinces. Bolivian towns and cities directly elect mayors and municipal councils. Municipal elections occur every five years.
Judicial and Legal System: Bolivia’s legal system is based on Spanish law and the Napoleonic Code. The 1999 penal code also incorporated the customary law of indigenous peoples. The implementation of the Code of Criminal Procedures (CCP) in May 2002 improved Bolivia’s court system. Members of the Judicial Technical Police, lawyers, law students, judges, and nongovernmental organization (NGO) representatives have received training in the new CCP, emphasizing the protection of legal and human rights. With the goal of rooting out corruption, the CCP changed the criminal justice system from a closed, written system to one with open, oral trials. Additionally, the Public Ministry Law, enacted in March 2002, introduced the role of prosecutor in the Bolivian legal system. Rather than the judge leading the investigation against a defendant, prosecutors now conduct the state’s inquiry.
In misdemeanor cases, a defendant appears in the lower courts before only a judge. In felony cases, two judges and a jury of three citizens decide the defendant’s fate. Defendants have the right to an attorney, to remain silent, to due process, and to a presumption of innocence, among others rights. In practice, these rights are often ignored. Nevertheless, the new transparency brought with the CCP has made the rights of the defendant somewhat easier to defend.
Electoral System: Since 1982, Bolivian elections have produced largely peaceful exchanges of political power. Elections for national and municipal offices are held every five years. Universal and compulsory suffrage exists in Bolivia (at age 21, or age 18 if married), but citizens must produce documentation in order to vote. Electoral judges serve in each department in order to rule on contested voter eligibility and other election discrepancies. Election fraud historically has plagued Bolivia, and accusations of fraud are a part of the Bolivian electoral system.
Politics and Political Parties: Bolivia has a fragmented political party system, as evidenced by the multitude of parties represented in the Congress. Support for the traditionally dominant parties⎯the Nationalist Revolutionary Movement (Movimiento Nacionalista Revolucionario⎯MNR), Nationalist Democratic Action (Acción Democrático Nacionalista⎯ADN), and Movement of the Revolutionary Left (Movimiento de la Izquierda Revolucionaria⎯MIR)⎯has declined since the 1980s. In their place, a plethora of single-interest parties have arisen. Regional and ethnic loyalties have replaced national coalitions. This development has led to a series of alliances among seemingly disparate political parties. For example, in 2002 four presidential candidates each received more than 15 percent of the vote, led by Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada with 23 percent. This result triggered a runoff between Sánchez de Lozada and the second-place candidate, Evo Morales. Sánchez de Lozada prevailed in this contest, but only by securing the support of his former rivals and forming an impossible-to-maintain four-party coalition. The power sharing required in such a political atmosphere has severely curtailed the effectiveness of the Congress. Patronage is divided among the parties to such an extent that bureaucratic efficiency also is compromised.
Carlos Mesa, a political independent, resigned from the presidency on June 6, 2005, as a result of massive public demonstrations in La Paz and out of frustration over Bolivia’s deadlocked political system. Eduardo Rodríguez succeeded Mesa on an interim basis, and a special national election was held in December 2005. Bolivians went to the polls in December 2005 to elect a president, both houses of Congress, and the nine departmental prefects. The top presidential candidates were Jorge “Tuto” Quiroga, former president and leader of the conservative ADN party, now associated with the Social Democratic Power (Poder Democrático y Social—Podemas) coalition; Evo Morales, indigenous leader of the leftist Movement Toward Socialism (Movimiento al Socialismo—MAS) party; and wealthy businessman Samuel Doria Medina of the centrist National Unity (Unidad Nacional—UN) party.
Evo Morales won the December 2005 presidential election in a landslide victory with 53.7 percent of the vote, thus making him the first ethnic Indian president in Bolivia’s history and the first president elected by a majority since the 1952 revolution. The controversial indigenous leader campaigned on a platform of nationalizing the hydrocarbons sector and ending a coca eradication program supported by the United States. The MAS’s strong showing in the presidential race and in the Chamber of Deputies was counterbalanced by opposition control of the Senate and of a majority of the nine prefectures.
Mass Media: Bolivia has nearly 200 privately owned television stations, but because rural regions of the country have few televisions and television reception is poor in many areas of the country, radio remains an important news disseminator. At last count, Bolivia had more than 480 radio stations, most of which were regional in scope. Bolivia also has eight national newspapers, in addition to many local ones. Of the national papers, four are based in La Paz, three in Santa Cruz, and one in Cochabamba. Most Bolivians continue to get their news from newspapers and radio broadcasts.
The Bolivian constitution protects freedom of the press and speech. Most newspapers take antigovernment positions. Both state-owned and privately owned radio stations operate without government censorship. Some restrictions do exist, however. The Penal Code demands jail time for those persons found guilty of slandering, insulting, or defaming public officials. In particular, the president, vice president, and ministers are protected by the Penal Code. Those charged with violating press standards are brought before the independent La Paz Press Tribunal.
Foreign Relations: Bolivia traditionally has had strong ties to the United States. Economically, the United States has been a long-standing consumer of Bolivian exports and a partner in development projects. Bolivia is heavily dependent on foreign aid. The country receives about US$500 million each year from 18 foreign institutions, including about US$150 million from the United States. In 1991 the United States forgave more than US$350 million owed by Bolivia to the U.S. Agency for International Development and the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Presently, about one-third of U.S. aid to Bolivia is earmarked for anti-drug trafficking programs.
More recently, Bolivia has attempted to strengthen its ties with neighboring South American countries. A bilateral agreement for natural gas exports with Argentina in 2004 represented a significant step in overcoming past hostilities to establish a mutually beneficial relationship. Bolivia’s diplomatic relationship with Chile remains strained, simmering still from the loss of Bolivia’s entire coastline to Chile in the late nineteenth century. Diplomatic relations between the two countries, reestablished briefly between 1975 and 1978, have been broken off at the ambassadorial level.