By Aisha Ali
Staff Writer

This past January, Bolivia celebrated the 10-year anniversary of President Evo Morales’ historic inauguration as the country’s first indigenous president. A presidential parade in La Paz and a trending topic on Twitter, #10AñosConEvo (10 Years with Evo), highlighted the changes Morales made over the last decade. During his five-hour speech to congress on the same day, Morales specifically addressed how his administration has turned around the Bolivian economy: external debt (as a percentage of Gross Domestic Product) has reduced from 67% in 2005 to 17% in 2015, while spending on education incentive programs has doubled in the same period.

On the heels of these 10-year anniversary celebrations, initial polls expected Bolivian voters to approve a referendum proposed by Morales, which would allow him to alter constitutional term limits and run for the fourth time as a presidential candidate.  A win in the 2019 election would have made Morales one of the longest sitting presidents in the region, extending his rule to 2025 and adding up to nearly 20 consecutive years in office. In order for the referendum to pass, Morales needed 70% of Bolivians to vote in favor of the changes. When the final numbers came in last week, only 48.67% of the population voted ‘Yes’, and the referendum failed to pass.

The breakdown of ‘Yes’ and ‘No’ votes were drastically different by department, or subdivision, which was largely due to where Bolivians have seen the most progress during Morales’ rule – or lack of. The Departments of Oruro, Cochabamba, and La Paz were mainly in favor of the referendum as ‘Yes’ beat out ‘No’ by nearly 10 percentage points in each area. The local governments of Oruro and Cochabamba, headed by members of Morales’ party MAS (Movimiento al Socialismo / Movement for Socialism), while La Paz’s governor Félix Patzi, a former MAS member, came out strongly against the referendum. In fact, some of the loudest opponents to the referendum were ex-MAS supporters and allies concerned about Morales’ possible extended rule and its effect on Bolivian democracy. Other opposition voters based their decision on Morales’ perceived ‘neglect’ of their regions and interests, particularly indigenous groups in the Amazon affected by the proposed TIPNIS highway, as well as people in the growing urban middle class. Bolivia’s younger population also voted primarily against the referendum, an indication of changing opinions on Morales and MAS among younger voters eager to see new leaders rather than the old guard.

Even among those who voted ‘Yes’, there is a growing suspicion of Morales’ hyper-focus on the development of Bolivia’s extraction industries. During the first half of his presidency, Bolivia took a leadership role in environmental protection under the overarching development principle of ‘vivir bien’ (living well). Since then, German and Chinese companies have been competing to invest in the development of Bolivia’s lithium reserves in Potosí, which constitutes 70% of the world’s total endowment. The development of these reserves could potentially net millions of dollars for the Bolivian government and its partners, which is why Morales’ government has already pledged to invest over $600 million in the project between now and 2019. Neither the government nor Morales have yet to address the environmental consequences of lithium production, particularly desertification of the area and water contamination. Petroleum, which has its own set of environmental concerns, accounts for 48% of Bolivia’s annual exports and an estimated 19% of GDP. Nationalization of the oil and natural gas industry, spearheaded by Morales’ government during his first term, has been the main factor in Bolivia’s relatively steady 5.5% GDP growth rate over the last few years. But declining commodity prices in 2015 could negatively impact Bolivia’s economy if oil prices fall too low, causing the country to lose its spot as Latin America’s strongest economy.

Regardless of the ‘No’ majority, Evo Morales still has one more term to finish as president of Bolivia. A new development plan for the country, the National Plan for Economic and Social Development 2016-2020, was introduced last year and will focus government efforts on diversifying exports, implementing infrastructure improvements, and increasing investment in public programs. In the meantime, MAS and opposition parties will need to start looking for a candidate to succeed Morales in 2019.

Image by Eneas De Troya


By Lauren Lam
Staff Writer

For the presidential candidates here in the United States, all that is required to ensure their presidency is winning the national election. For Myanmar’s Aung San Suu Kyi however, leading her National League for Democracy (NLD) party to an electoral victory was only half the battle; now she must convince the incumbent government, the public, and the international community that her victory actually means something in a country where elections historically mean nothing.

The military has been in power in Myanmar, also known as Burma, since 1962. Although the military stepped back from direct rule in 2011, the semi-civilian government is still largely directly and indirectly controlled by the military. As the leader of the main pro-democracy opposition party, Aung San Suu Kyi is one of the military’s key targets; since 1989, she has routinely been sentenced to house arrest, prison, prevented from participating in the elections, and subjected to various other restrictions on her rights. Her party won a landslide victory in the November 2015 elections, so it would appear this is all about to change. Yet this victory may not be as great an accomplishment and a strong signal of progress as it would seem. The NLD won the elections back in 1990 as well, but instead of Aung San Suu Kyi assuming office, the military ignored the election results and went on to continue military rule.

Change is desperately needed in Myanmar. According to the American think tank Freedom House, Myanmar has a “not free” rating, and the internet and press are still severely restricted. The incumbent military government has a long history of ignoring democratic rights, has consistently persecuted minority groups including the Rohingya Muslims, and has caused economic stagnation in the country.

Contrastingly, Aung San Suu Kyi was awarded a Nobel Peace Prize back in 1991 for her “non-violent struggle for democracy and human rights”. Her party promotes a transition to a multi-party democracy in Myanmar, the introduction of widely protected freedom of speech, the implementation of rule of law, and national reconciliation. Such political freedom and increased accountability would be miraculous.

Beyond these immediate policy changes, such a platform could dramatically improve Myanmar’s international standing, which could also gradually lead to an economic revival. The US, the EU, and other western allies placed heavy sanctions on the government of Myanmar because of its poor track record when it comes to political freedom. While many sanctions were lifted between 2012 and 2013, many are still in place and are conditional on Myanmar’s continued move towards democracy. The EU’s embargo on arms and related material, its ban on exports of equipment for internal repression, and its ban on the provision of certain services remain intact to at least later this year. The US government has begun to allow American companies to invest and do business in Myanmar, but the government remains very critical of the military’s role in the economy and lack of transparency. Therefore,  the alleviation of restrictions does not apply to any entities owned by the owned forces and the Ministry of Defence. President Obama continues to increase sanctions on those who undermine democratic reform and commit human rights abuses. Aung San Suu Kyi is widely supported by the west, and restrictions would likely continue to be removed if she were in power. Myanmar is in dire need of foreign investment to boost its economy. Its GDP per capita is currently ranked 165th with a measly value of $5,200; for comparison, the GDP per capita of the United States is $56,300.

Having Aung San Suu Kyi in power could also be monumental for the region. The think tank argues that the Asia-Pacific region shows some of the most progress of democratisation and liberation, yet many of Myanmar’s neighbours including Laos, Cambodia, China, and Vietnam still with a “not free” classification as the Asia-Pacific region as a whole only has a 38% freedom score. Democracy began taking hold in many former colonised nations in Asia and across the globe in the second half of the twentieth century, but progress has stagnated in the twenty-first century. Aung San Suu Kyi’s presidency could be an important opportunity to jumpstart democracy in Southeast Asia.

That is, if Aung San Suu Kyi ever comes to power. While the military has conceded its loss and is negotiating its transition out of power, it has so far refused to let Aung San Suu Kyi take the presidency over a technicality. According to the constitution, which was drafted and is protected by the military, Aung San Suu Kyi cannot become president because she married a foreigner and her sons are not Myanmar citizens. Although the military have met with Suu Kyi several times since the November elections, the military has been quoted saying they have no plans to alter the clause in the constitution.

The NLD must submit their candidates for the presidency in a month’s time, and although there are rumours of a few potential candidates, the presidency situation remains altogether unclear. It could be argued that this new era is about more than just Aung San Suu Kyi and that any NLD president would be a welcome change; yet, if Suu Kyi is blocked from assuming office, this is still highly symbolic. It demonstrates that the military still holds significant sway in political affairs and brings back old memories from the 1990 election. Perhaps below the surface, nothing has changed at all; victory still means nothing.


Image by totaloutnow



By Lauren Lam
Staff Writer

At the Gettysburg Address in 1863, Abraham Lincoln famously proclaimed that the United States should enjoy “government of the people, by the people, for the people”. Flash forward a century and a half and one will find that this is not at all the reality of today’s political system. Only 58% of eligible voters cast their ballots in the 2012 American presidential election and a mere 36.3% voted in the 2014 midterm elections. So why is it that in a world where so many countries are still fighting for free elections and universal suffrage, countless citizens in the United States, and other well-established democracies, chose not to exercise their democratic right?

The International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance ranks the USA 120th for average national voter turnout. Although the United States performs poorly in international rankings of political participation, it is certainly not alone in declining voter turnout. Prior to the most recent federal election on October 19th, Canada’s voter turnout had been steadily declining, reaching an all-time low of 58.8% in 2008. In the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), whose members are largely considered to be high-income developed countries with high Human Development Index (HDI) scores, 29 of its 34 members experienced a percentage decline in voter turnout from 1980 to 2011. Voter turnout declined an average of eleven percentage points during this period for the organisation as a whole.

Poor political participation is problematic for a multitude of reasons. First of all, there is arguably an ethical dimension; citizens should exercise their democratic right that their predecessors worked so hard to achieve. Secondly, when fewer people vote, it undermines the principles of democracy. When citizens are not politically engaged and fail to participate in elections, the government becomes more like an oligarchy than a democracy. Participation is vital to represent what the populace wants, and also works to shape government policy in a positive trajectory. Furthermore, low voter turnout affects political parties disproportionately; traditionally, conservative-leaning parties, including the Republican Party in the US, benefit because young, low-income, and minority potential voters are less likely to cast their ballots. Thus, for better and for worse, choosing not to vote is a vote in itself.

But why are people no longer motivated to go to the polls? There are several factors which contribute to voter turnout including degree of formal education, health, income level, political competition, age demographics, relevant campaign issues, publicity, convenience, and perception of being able to make a tangible difference. Some of these factors involve deeply embedded, systemic issues; for example, in Hawaii, a state with one of the lowest voter turnouts, there is a “vicious cycle of people who are disappointed in the government and politics, and they don’t vote”. While voter apathy and disenchantment with the electoral system are important issues that should be addressed, it is easier to improve democracy by increasing voter turnout in the more immediate future.

One of the easiest ways to increase turnout at the polls is to make voting more convenient. In 49 American states, there is a two-step process to vote: eligible citizens must first register to vote, then actually cast their ballots. In countries such as Germany and France however, voter lists are produced based on population databases and other governmental agencies. Voting thus becomes much simpler, which results in a higher turnout. The electoral system can also be made more convenient through enhanced advance polling and absentee balloting. In the 2015 Canadian federal election, 3.6 million voters cast their ballots in advance voting over four days, up 16% over the three days of advance voting in the 2011 election, though there are several other factors that may have come into play. Bernie Sanders has intriguingly proposed to make Election Day a national holiday entitled “Democracy Day” to encourage political participation. This would effectively give all citizens both the time and the opportunity to vote.

Mail-in ballots have also proved to be very effective in increasing voter turnout. In the 2014 US midterm elections, Oregon, which uses a mail ballot system, had the 5th highest turnout by state, while Colorado had the 4th highest turnout by state after switching to a mail ballot system that year. If more states follow suit, national voter turnout will likely increase. Electronic ballot systems could also make voting much more convenient. Young voters are especially likely to refrain from traditional voting, thus making electronic voting very appealing to the youth demographic. In India, national elections were successfully held via computer technology owned and operated by the government, giving hope to advocates in the USA.

Rather than make voting more convenient however, many Republican state legislatures and governors have passed laws which make it more difficult to vote. This legislation has made it more difficult to register to vote, has reduced the window for early voting, and has even made a picture ID mandatory to vote. Similar legislation was implemented in Canada by outgoing Prime Minister Stephen Harper, which many argue was intended to suppress indigenous voters. To have truly democratic elections, all such legislation should be reformed or repealed.

A more drastic measure to increase voter turnout would be to make voting compulsory. Such laws already exist in Australia and Belgium, countries which have the highest percentages of eligible voters who vote of 14 comparable, wealthy countries. In Australia, there are strict laws against refusing to vote which can lead to no-show fines; meanwhile, Belgium disenfranchises voters who continually fail to vote and as a result enjoys a turnout of approximately 93%. Conversely, the implementation of such laws in the United States would likely be met with a great deal of backlash. After all, is this not an undemocratic way of conducting democracy? Many Australians oppose their current electoral system, including Jason Kent, who notes that about 10% of individuals still fail to register, and a further 6% of votes are spoiled, perhaps as a form of protest.

In order to improve voter turnout, political officials in the United States and abroad are best off making minor changes to improve the convenience of voting. Nonetheless, it is equally important to realize that high voter turnout does not equate to high political engagement. While improving voter turnout will make democracy more democratic, policymakers must simultaneously strive to make citizens more politically aware. Campaigns need to move away from negative campaigning, which only serves to make voters apathetic and frustrated. In the meantime, our broken form of democracy prevails.

Image by MarylandGovPics