Will the creation of multiple and
overlapping regional, subregional and
local government authorities unify
or fragment Bolivia? BY MIGUEL CENTELLAS
olivia under President Evo Morales
is undergoing revolutionary change.
Since it assumed
power in 2006,
much of the international attention
on the Morales government has focused on its socioeconomic policies.
But those policies may ultimately
leave less of a political imprint than
the transformation of the country’s
governing structures. In fact, the most
profoundly radical development is Bolivia’s transition from a traditional
unitary state toward something resembling a federalized one—though
the end point of this process remains
ivan aLvarado / reuterS
Political power in Bolivia, as in
much of Latin America, has been historically centralized in the national
government. Subnational authorities
traditionally served as agents of the
executive. But during the wave of decentralization that accompanied the
region’s return to democracy, Bolivia
began to move toward the federal
models of Mexico, Brazil, Argentina,
and Venezuela. With this year’s local
and regional elections, it has become
the most decentralized of Latin America’s nonfederal states.
It is now worth asking whether the
results have advanced Bolivia’s democratic development or hindered it.
The movement toward a federalized structure began in the mid-1990s,
when the Ley de Participación Popular
(Popular Participation Law) created 311
popularly elected municipal governments (since expanded to 337) and constitutionally guaranteed them direct
fiscal transfers. It also included mechanisms for grassroots citizen organizations to play direct oversight and
planning roles in local government.
At the time, the neoliberal architects of those reforms argued that
municipal decentralization was more
effective than granting more powers
to Bolivia’s nine departments, which
would merely reproduce the inefficiencies of the central government.
That was a justifiable concern, since
each of the departments was politically and economically dominated
by its capital city. The decision to create 311 municipal governments—most
of which had fewer than 15,000 residents—was a conscious effort to bring
local government to marginalized indigenous and rural communities.
One of the most striking results of
the law was the empowerment of a
new generation of political leaders,
such as Evo Morales. But just as significant, municipal decentralization
along with electoral reforms that introduced a mixed-member electoral
system, accelerated the decline of Bolivia’s traditional party system.