In the seedbed of one of my previous plantings on Bolivia, Miguel Centellas makes some quite fascinating observations about turnout of poor voters in Bolivia. Much of what he says fits with most of my understanding about poor people’s participation in Latin America: that it is largely instrumental and orchestrated by leaders:
it was clear that protests hit their peak at just about the part where the leaders of the â€œsindicatosâ€ started handing out the little â€œfichasâ€ (used to mark attendance). Once the fichas were distributed, a protest of several thousand could dwindle down to less than a hundred. Protesters are either a) paid to protest or b) fined by their local sindicato bosses for failure to attend.
If you will forgive my painting with a terribly broad brush (or should that be digging with a terribly broad spade?), I would say this is fairly typical. However, then I see a contradiction in the next point Miguel makes, and I am puzzled by it:
voter turnout in poor areas is often low due to transportation and other matters, regardless of organization. The day of voting, all public transportation (well, almost all businesses, actually) are shut down. So voter turnout can be low if itâ€™s difficult to reach a polling station.
I am wondering how different this is from Colombia, where I observed some congressional elections as part of my research in the 1990s in both rural and urban areas of the coffee growing region (around Manizales, ChinchinÃ¡, and Pereira). Voter turnout tends to be quite low in Colombia, especially in congressional elections (which, unlike in Bolivia, are not on the same day as presidential). Turnout in Colombia tends to be significantly lower in aggregate levels, than in Bolivia. Yet the people who are most likely to vote, in Colombian legislative elections, tend to be precisely those who are organized (and perhaps paid somehow) to vote. So, it remains puzzling to me that Bolivia could have mass organization among the poor that are so effective in mobilizing people that they can shut the major (and minor) cities down for days on end, and yet these same people would have low voter turnout.
Regarding transportation shutdowns on voting day, that is true in Colombia, too. But the buses that would normally run on regular routes are used, along with other vehicles, to transport voters to the polls. The area near polling stations is jammed all day long with buses and other vehicles that transport voters–those affiliated with party or labor or other organizations, that is–to vote. I have never witnessed a Bolivian election, so I do not know how typical this Colombian pattern is (or even it the pattern I am describing is still typical of Colombia, given recent political and institutional changes).