Interest group dynamics in a weak and transitional state: the case of Bolivia

Published date01 November 2014
Date01 November 2014
Special Issue Paper
Interest group dynamics in a weak and
transitional state: the case of Bolivia
Sergio Biggemann
*, Kristina Klimovich
and Clive S. Thomas
Department of Marketing, University of Otago, Dunedin, New Zealand
The New School, New York City, New York, USA
Thomas S. Foley Institute for Politics and Public Service, Washington State University, Pullman,
Washington, USA
Bolivias political development has been characterized by elitist control set in an environment of political instability
and a weak decentralized state. Since the 1980s and Bolivias transition to a limited form of democracy, this elitist
control has been successfully challenged from the left and, since the early 2000s, particularly by the indigenous
population. In fact, Bolivian contemporary politics and interest group activity have been shaped mainly by the rise
in political power of the left and indigenous interests. This rise, given a weak state transitioning to limited democracy,
has had several consequences for interest group activity that add increasing complexity to the group system. One
consequence of Bolivias course of political development is that, although it exhibits many common elements of
interest group activity explained by existing group theories, aspects of its group development are not adequately
accounted for by these theories. In addition, there are questions about whether the new conguration of interest
groups promotes or undermines democracy. Copyright © 2014 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.
In a region known for the regularity and size of its
mass demonstrations, Bolivians have a particular
penchant for venting their political ire en masse in
the streets, marches, sit-ins, boycotts, and most
recently, chew-ins’—mass chewing of coca leaves
to protest attempts to eradicate coca leaf produc-
tion. This mass form of political advocacy provides
important insights into Bolivias underdeveloped
but recently transformed interest group system.
Although its political advocacy system is less
developed than many in Latin America, such as
those in Brazil, Chile, Costa Rica, and Uruguay,
developments since the mid-1980s, especially
the movement to a limited form of democracy,
have changed the nat ure of Bolivian polit ics and
with it its interest group system. In particular,
the rise of both Evo Morales, a coca farmer,
llama herder, and union leader, with his election
in 2005 as the nationsrst indigenous presi-
dent, and a new political party, Movement Towards
Socialism (MAS) , has reshaped Boliv iasinterest
group system.
The new interest group dynamics have brought
problems of their own, however. These include
groups within that community are aff ected differ-
ently by political issues, and as social movements
transition into m ore focused interest groups.
Perhaps most important of all, what since the
election of Morales has amounted to the dominance
of one political party, the MAS, raises questions
about the extent to which the new political order
promotes a strong and inclusive civil society. This
raises a key question: does Bolivias new political
order produce a viable an d all-embracing in terest
group system and effective pluralist democracy
or a form of populist democracy that excludes
certain interests?
*Correspondence to: Sergio Biggemann, Department of Market-
ing, University of Otago, Dunedin, New Zealand.
Journal of Public Affairs
Volume 14 Number 3 pp 254282 (2014)
Published online 6 November 2014 in Wiley Online Library
( DOI: 10.1002/pa.1546
Copyright © 2014 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.
Like all interest group systems, Boliviasis
unique in its specic development, issues, particu-
lar range of interests, operating techniques, and
power dynamics between interests. Yet, analysis
shows that the Bolivian system has also exhibited
many common elements of interest group systems
as it developed, particularly as a result of the major
changes that have occurred since the mid-1980s.
Given this manifestation of both unique and com-
mon elements, this article takes the relationship of
these two elements as its theme. The major purpose
is to explain the relationship between the two and
what this tells us about the countrysinterestgroup
system in the past and particularly its present con-
guration and likely future developments. The
methodological approach combines political devel-
opment with political economy and the application
of interest group theory. This eclectic approach is a
lack of information sources that deal directly with
interest groups in Bolivia.
The sources that are available are several treat-
ments on Bolivias politics and political history
(e.g., Hylton and Thomson, 2007; Klein, 2003;
Morales, 2004; Sándor John, 2009) and of the countrys
contemporary turbulent history (e.g., Dangl, 2007;
Kohl and Farthing, 2006; Lehoucq, 2011, 2014;
Morales, 2012; Webber, 2011), all of which deal with
various power groups, interests, and interest
social movements. Added to these are various
statistical sources and contemporary accounts
found in newspapers and newsletters, such as
LatinNews, information from group websites,
and the extensive experience of the authors. Ex-
trapolating from and synthesizing these sources
provide the foundation of past and present inter-
est group activity in Bolivia for achieving the
twofold goal of the article.
This approach enables us to deal with several
specic questions. These include the following.
How do extreme economic, social, and geographic
differences shape interest group dynamics? What
are the ramications of the weak state and decen-
tralization as Bolivia transitions to democracy?
What inuences the current interest group system?
What do the tactics used reveal about the level of
democratization? What major elements of its group
system does Bolivia share with other Latin
American systems? In what ways does Bolivias
experience reect general patterns of group system
development? Or is it an outlier in its political
advocacy system? And how do the nations present
political arrangements under the rule of MAS affect
political advocacy and democracy?
The article begins with an overview of Bolivias
contemporaryinterest group system, whichhas some
particular features that are much less prominent in
most Latin American group systems. To account for
these differences and provide a foundation for the
analysis in the rest of the article, the next section ex-
plains six major factors that have shaped Bolivias
group system. This is followed by an outline of the
development ofthe group system and recent changes
in group strategiesand tactics. To illustrate the evolv-
ing nature of the group system, the next section pre-
sents some case studies. How interest group
development is affecting Bolivias democracy is the
subject of the next section. Then the countrysgroup
activity is assessed against interest group theory.
The conclusion returns to the theme of the chapter
and also looks at the viabilityof Bolivias new interest
group system.
Drawing on our theme that the Bolivian group sys-
tem exhibits both elements common to all group sys-
tems and some variations and even some unique
elements, we make the following initial observations.
Common elements
First and foremost, like all nations, states, and
localities, past and present, at the fundamental
level, Bolivian politics is essentially group politics
with various interests competing to get their
political agenda translated into public policy. This
can be to promote certain issues or to block those
of their opponents.
Similar to all political systems that have
transitioned to some formof democracy, the Bolivian
system has seen a gradual expansion in the range of
groups since 1982 when it nominally became a de-
mocracy. These include traditional as well as new in-
terests of the individual membership, organizational
interest, and institutional interest categories ex-
plained in the introductory article. The new interests
include environmentalists and groups representing
previously unrepresented segments of society, such
as the poor and indigenous peoples. Insert 1 lists the
major groups operating today. The system has
become more institutionalized, and power groups
For denitions of the various terms relating to Latin American
politics and interest group activity used in this article, see the in-
troductory article to this volume, Tables 2 and 3.
Interest group dynamics in a weak state 255
Copyright © 2014 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd. J. Public Affairs 14, 254282 (2014)
DOI: 10.1002/pa

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