Tag Archives ethnicity

The politics of ethnicity: are political elites in Bolivia using indigenous discourses to win elections?

In Bolivia and elsewhere in Latin America, indigenous peoples have sought greater inclusion and more rights and freedoms for many decades. While it appears that they have been somewhat successful in doing so, in reality, their lives have not changed much. Political promises to act on their behalf have not been honoured and they remain excluded and marginalized. The link between poverty and being indigenous persists. In this article, Alvaro Deuer Cenzano, ISS 2018-2019 Alumni, shows why it’s important to study the role of elites in perpetuating these social injustices, arguing that the instrumental use of ethnic discourses to win elections may be strongly contributing.


In the past few decades, more attention has been paid to the plight of Bolivia’s indigenous peoples, which form a significant part of its total population.[1] This emerged following several global developments, including the United Nations’ approval in 1989 of the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples under the Indigenous and Tribal Peoples Convention (no. 169). And so, after years of discussing the rights of indigenous people, in 1995, the Bolivian Congress approved a Constitutional reform that redefined its state as a “pluricultural and multi-ethnic republic”. At that time, the country’s Constitution was considered progressive in that it recognized the importance of the indigenous population, and other countries in Latin America such as Ecuador followed suit.

While this Constitution meant the official recognition of Bolivia’s multi-ethnic and pluricultural society and the expansion of indigenous people rights, it did not make provision for territorial self-government, however. In other words, government policies in the 1990s failed to enact the territorial autonomy that was desired.

This observation prompted me to ask why proposed policies and the realities of indigenous peoples remain misaligned. As a Bolivian, I have witnessed promises being made by political elites while campaigning,[2] their coming to power by claiming to represent the indigenous population, and their failure to act on their promises once they assumed office. Yet they retain power despite not delivering on their promises.

The need to understand how and why this is happening prompted me to register for a PhD study at the Graduate School of International Development at Nagoya University. Last month, I managed to successfully present my research proposal titled ‘The instrumentalization of indigenous discourse as a political strategy to win elections’. Through my PhD research, I want to explain how the discourses that political elites use in representing indigenous populations help maintain their power. The study will focus on Bolivia, but its theoretical framework can be applied to other Latin-American countries where significant segments of the population self-identify as indigenous (e.g. Guatemala, Chile, Colombia, and Peru), as well as to European countries that have undergone ethnic wars linked to nationalist sentiments driven by the discourses of political elites.

Several people tried to convince me to choose a different topic, one linked to my work experience, for example in the fields of territorial planning, health governance, or even decentralized governance. In this article, I will explain why I decided to stick to this topic and what I’m planning to do.


Discourses, discrepancies, and disillusionment

For most of the 197 years since its independence from Spain, Bolivia has been governed mainly by political parties comprising representatives drawn from white or mestizo (mixed) ethnic groups. In this period, the rights of indigenous people were neither recognized, nor assured.[3]

Things seemed to improve when the Movimiento al Socialismo (MAS – Movement for Socialism) came to power in 2005 with the support of social movements and the votes of indigenous people.[4] Among its first measures was to convene a Constitutional Assembly that dealt with the indigenous demand for autonomy, self-determination, and self-government. And thus, in 2009, the new Constitution granted indigenous people territorial self-government rights. They were also assigned a number of other political, economic, linguistic, and democratic rights.[5]

Moreover, to keep the support of social movements, it combined indigenous and peasant identity categories, giving rise to the Autonomias Indigena Originario Campesinas (AIOC – Native Indigenous Peasant Autonomies), the second layer of Bolivian local governments. This would allow indigenous communities to become autonomous governments given the fulfillment of requisites overseen by the Bolivian Electoral Court and the Vice Ministry of Autonomies.

However, despite the government’s acknowledgment of indigenous people’s desire to rule their own territories, at present, only six indigenous territories have become AIOCs. Given that indigenous self-government constitutes the core of indigenous movements’ demands made to the Constitutional Assembly, a faster implementation of it would have been envisioned, which goes hand in hand with MAS power consolidation. This has raised questions about MAS’s commitment to indigenous struggles and principles despite its strong claims to represent the country’s indigenous population.


Conceptually linking ethnic and populist discourses

I therefore seek to analyze how marginalized groups’ demands for self-government, specifically the demands of indigenous peoples, are used by political elites to consolidate their hegemony and as a strategy to obtain electoral success. I believe that this results in societal polarization based on a process of ethnic identification (‘us’ vs. ‘the others’). While indigenous discourses allow so-called ethnic parties to succeed in the electoral arena, it likely also leads to the appearance (or deepening) of populist leadership traits, which represents a hazard to the consolidation of democracy. All in all, I hope to identify the mechanisms that enable ethnic parties to swing toward the populist side of an ethno-populist pendulum and its effect on the consolidation of democratic institutions.

[1] In 2021, Bolivia ranked second in Latin America when it comes to the percentage of people who claimed to be indigenous, with 41% of the total population self-identifying as such (Statista, 2022). The two biggest indigenous groups, the Quechuas and Aymaras, together represent just under 82% of the country’s indigenous population, comprising together 34% – or around one-third – of Bolivia’s total population.

[2] In the last years, Bolivia’s corruption perception index has worsened despite every candidate’s promise to fight corruption (Fides, 2022).

[3] Indigenous groups started to develop their own current of thought in Bolivia in the early 1970s when they realized that mainstream politics of the time used them and that Marxist parties were factually rendering them invisible. Thus, in the late 1980s, the first indigenous political parties were formed and started to participate in national elections, obtaining minor victories (Madrid, 2012)

[4] MAS was created in 1995 as a political instrument of different indigenous and peasants’ organizations, the latter with a strong union tradition, to access spaces of political power, initially at the local level and later, given its electoral success, on a national scale. (Valdivia, 2016, pág. 24).

[5] See Articles 30 – 32 of the current Constitution (Plurinational Legislative Assembly of Bolivia, 2009).

Opinions expressed in Bliss posts reflect solely the views of the author of the post in question.

About the author:

Alvaro Deuer Cenzano is a Business Administrator and Political Scientist with 10 + years of professional experience in public policy implementation in local development, territorial and institutional planning, and comparative research in decentralization, public finance, education, and ethnic politics.  Currently, pursuing a Ph.D. in Development Studies at Nagoya University and looking for opportunities to expand his networks and join Think Tanks or NGO industries in the development and public policy-related areas.

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Public spaces as a battleground by Katerina Mojanchevska

Public spaces are important in the Macedonian context because they’re one of the few places where people from diverse ethnic backgrounds can interact. But these spaces are undergoing fundamental changes. Public spaces are becoming sites for symbolic wars between the ethno-nationalists of the two major ethnic groups in the country. Diversity is seen as a threat, and a type of “staged multiculturalism” is visible.

The importance of public spaces

In a country divided along ethnic lines, public spaces seem to be the only meeting place left for ethnic groups that are growing more divided. Moreover, contact is the only way to surpass ethnic fragmentation that has been accelerated in recent years in Macedonia.

Macedonia is one of successor countries of ex-Yugoslavia. In 1991, the country proclaimed independence and initiated a process of building a nation-state with a majoritarian political design in a general liberal democratic framework. The Macedonians constituting 64.2 percent of the population were the majority and the legitimate political community while the Albanians, Turks, Roma, Vlachs, Serbs, and Bosnians, which represented 25.2 percent of the population, enjoyed equal rights and obligations as the majority group. Yet in practice, the minorities were stranded by difficulties in equal access to political life, the labour market, education, social and cultural life.

In the Macedonian context of recognising diversity, the popular belief of politicians, academics or citizens is that the dominant group has the right to decide how accommodation of cultural diversity should be installed in public space. Symbols of a group’s ethnic history and cultural memory facilitate recognition and identification with space; public spaces thereby essentially become ethnic spaces.

The subjective valuation of public spaces: a research topic

For my PhD research, I explored how people felt and understood the practices through which language, ethnicity, religion and collective cultural symbols are legitimised in the physical form and the political, social and symbolic (cultural) value of public spaces in their neighbourhoods. The research concludes that the political, social and symbolic values of public spaces in Skopje can be understood in terms of a “diversity paradox”. Why?

Public spaces in Skopje are not natural and spontaneous sites of positive intercultural contact. Residents in mixed neighbourhoods more often than those in ethnic neighbourhoods opt for co-ethnic cultural events in co-ethnic public spaces where people from their ethnic group go. Self-segregation of ethnic groups is prevalent. The colliding ethnocratic accommodation of diversity in public space, especially in mixed neighbourhoods, generates a sense of symbolic threat and forges people to compartmentalise within their own ethnic group.

Diversity as threat to national unity

The research found that diversity is seen as a threat to national unity. My most compelling discovery is that is the case of Skopje and Macedonia we are talking about “staged multiculturalism”—it is not lived or experienced, but designed and created. The effects of such ethnocratic politics are obvious. A high level of ethnic distance in particular among Macedonians and Albanians is evident in personal networking and socialisation in public spaces. Seventeen years after the conflict and systemic investment in multicultural policies, diversity is seen as a threat to national unity,

Relevance of the research

This reading is important to the cities in the Balkans that struggle with ethnic fragmentation as it is to the cities considering themselves as ethnically homogeneous, but which do face claims for the accommodation of diversity, in particular after the explosive waves of immigration that we have witnessed since 2015. Habermas[1] (2016) contends that states and cities have no other option than to open the stage for those different from the “norm”, facilitate the deliberative process of interpretation, and recognize needs and forge active urban citizenship. This leads me to recommend ways in which to plan for diversity in public spaces:

  • The interpretation and recognition of difference through deliberation should follow the political acts of planning of public spaces;
  • The habitual engagement and interdependence of goals and actions between social groups and places should be organised and allow more structural contact, flexibility, contestation, transgression between identity(ies), group(s) and associational belonging(s);
  • The social planning of public spaces as places of conflict and negotiation and a process of “city-making” should couple the technocratic production of “city being made”. Urban and social planning of cities should support each other, rather than professional planning dominating over citizens` involvement in city making.

I conclude with Leonie Sandercock[2] (1998: 30), who critically observes that:

 “The multicultural city cannot be imagined without a belief in inclusive democracy and the diversity of social justice claims of the disempowered communities in existing cities. If we want to work toward a policy of inclusion, then we had better have a good understanding of the exclusionary effects of planning’s past practices and ideologies. And if we want to plan in the future for heterogeneous publics (rather than a unitary public interest), acknowledging and nurturing the full diversity of all of the different social groups in the multicultural city, then we need to develop a new kind of multicultural literacy. An essential part of that literacy is familiarity with the multiple histories of urban communities, especially as those histories intersect with struggles over space and place claiming, with planning policies and resistances to them, with traditions of indigenous planning, and with questions of belonging and identity and acceptance of difference.”

[1]Habermas, J. (2016) ‘For a democratic polarization’. Interview with Blätter für deutsche und internationale Politik, 22 November.
[2] Sandercock, L. (1998) ‘Introduction: Framing Insurgent Historiographies for Planning’, in Sandercock, L. (ed.) Making the invisible Visible: A Multicultural Planning History. Berkeley: University of California Press, pp. 1–33.

Picture credit: Paul Goyette

Katerina Mojanchevska_PhD defence2018About the author:

Katerina Mojanchevska is a recent doctoral graduate from the ISS (May 2018). She has been working in the civil society sector in Macedonia on research projects, trainings and seminars in the field of cultural policy, and urban and social development. Her research and professional interests encompass intersection among identity, public space, inter-culturality and innovation in urban governance.