The referendum: a challenge for democracy

Democracy in the world seems to go be in recession. The geographical coverage of countries governed by democratic regimes has been reduced in the last 10 years. And the quality of democracy also declined, according to indicators of strength of institutions and the rule of law. These trends lead to Larry Diamond to notice that democracy is in recession. After several years of expansion and improvement of democracy in the world, its deterioration is easily evident.

In Latin America the problem is a persistent loss of the quality of democracy. The political institutions have weakened, losing in many cases the ability to perform its functions, and the rules are obsolete or have been modified to meet the immediate and ephemeral needs of rulers. Some are already authoritarian but with a thin layer of democratic enamel.

I believe this is explained by a predominant participationist approach, which mainly simplifies democracy with ballots. In that approach, democracy widens and deepens as more people vote, more issues are decided and authorities are elected by voting. Once in practice, this approach lead to reduce the enfranchising requirements and has transformed the right to vote into an obligation that even carries punishment. And it has also increased the number of public offices subject to voting.

That approach lost sight that citizen participation was not an end in itself originally but a means of establishing limits on power, which is the main objective of democracy. This in fact arises to limit power, establishing controls that prevent the authorities and government officials abuse the authority conferred on them, and to employe it for social benefit. By replacing the divine source of power with the citizens’ vote, breaking that power and distribute its functions among its members became possible. It also facilitated the setting of time limits and the possibility of revoking the delegation of power, so that the renovation also marks limits to power and prevent abuse.

Since the goal of democracy is to establish a limited and controlled power, the rule of law is even more important than the citizen’s vote. The existence of explicit rules and institutions capable of enforcing them just give certainty to all and allow a citizen, even isolated and alone, to defend himself from any abuse of authority or group.

This dimension of democracy, which defines its essence and its main quality as a system of government, was largely ignored. We built plebiscitary regimes but not the rule of law in Latin America. So we have weak democracies and they are also continue to weaken, despite the high voter turnout and the number of times that citizens go to the polls.

Bolivia lives this tension with particular intensity because their constitutional rules, as modified under pressure and conflict a few years now, are again exposed to the possibility of reform, calling citizens to vote again.

However, the referendum can also be an opportunity to mark a turning point to reverse the trend and begin to assert the need to restore the rule of law and to strengthen institutions.
Voters in five regions send a first sign of rejection to the use of popular votes for handling the autonomic rules and several surveys found a majority willing to reject a new presidential term referring to constitutional reform. It is not a rejection of the President, who continues to enjoy high popularity, not a negative judgment on his administration, because it is also still valued positively. Those were essentially democratic statements, which suggest that people want to live under rules that are respected by all and are not changed to meet the needs of individuals or groups in power.

True, some Bolivians disrespect the law and circumvent it as much they can. But it is becoming increasingly clear that there is a growing aspiration to live under the rule of law, with laws that are reasonable and easy to meet, so that anyone can find shelter and protection in them, without fearing that an official will abuse or try to change them according to their own objectives.

We must remember that the referendum only indirectly calls into question the permanence of President Morales. What is really at play is legal certainty and the rule of law. No one should change the rules of the game while it is being played. It is because of this that we must consider the referendum an opportunity to appeal to the participation, so that, as it was in the beginning, became a mean to rebuild a system whose rules and institutions be enough to ensure freedom and restrict all powers for the common good.



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