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Bolivia and the risks of dissensus

In last week's constitutional referendum in Bolivia, 59% of voters approved of the proposed constitution. As the dust settles from that highly controversial affair, we can begin to make some observations.

Some constitutions "get done" through significant compromise, or at least logrolling. This was not one of those. Deep differences surfaced (and exploded) well before the government prepared its document. These differences, which have a regional (highland/lowland) component, are not likely to disappear. The new constitution commits the country to a political program whose proposal had been met by either jubilation or disgust by citizens. Certainly, other historic constitutions have included ambitious programs of social, political, and economic reform. In situations like Bolivias in which deep ethnic and economic inequality exist, the entrenchment in higher law of programs like land reform -- reforms that are often politically difficult to implement -- can be helpful.

Whether this constitution can last, however, is another question. Bolivia has been engulfed in violence in the last year over the appropriateness of the very reforms now enshrined in the constitution. Those opposed to things like redistribution and the removal of Catholicism as the state religion have not bought in. They remain opposed, perhaps even more bitterly. One thing that research has shown is that consensual constitutional processes lower the risks of premature constitutional death. In this sense, risks to the Bolivian document seem high.

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