Morales survives Bolivian election test, but foes also gain

McClatchy NewspapersAugust 10, 2008 

LA PAZ, Bolivia - President Evo Morales scored a split victory in a national referendum Sunday when Bolivians voted to keep him in office but also ratified governors who are his implacable foes, according to television exit polls.

The result will mean continued division along political and geographic lines over Morales' efforts to push through Socialist policies meant to give greater political and economic power to the indigenous majority, analysts said.

"The polarization will continue," former President Carlos Mesa said in an interview. "So will the radical policies by both sides. Neither side has enough power to make the changes it wants on its own."

Morales emerged from Sunday's plebiscite with a strengthened hand after winning 60 percent of the overall vote, according to ATB television station. Morales received overwhelming majorities in Bolivia's western Andean states.

In the expectations game, the 60 percent result would reinvigorate the president politically because it would top the 53.5 percent he received when he was elected in December 2005.

But the opposition - which is centered in the more entrepreneurial-minded eastern states - has also emerged fortified. Three of the four states that voted this year for great autonomy from the central government in La Paz rejected the president, and voters ratified opposition governors in all four of the states.

Ruben Costas, governor of the main opposition state, Santa Cruz, won 70 percent of the vote, according to ATB.

Elsewhere, Manfred Reyes, the anti-Morales governor of Cochabamba state, was losing, according to exit polls.

Reyes had called the referendum was illegal and said he would not leave the governor's office on Monday. He remained defiant Sunday night, and his stance could set the stage for a violent confrontation in a state where pro-government supporters burned the governor's office 18 months ago in opposition to Reyes.

Besides Reyes, the anti-Morales governor of La Paz and the pro-Morales governor of Oruro also appeared on the way to being recalled. Morales would appoint interim replacements, and new elections would be called in 90-120 days.

Bolivia is South America's poorest country, with an economy the size of Alaska's. Under Morales, Bolivia has uneasy relations with the United States.

Reporters from around the world covered Sunday's election. The principal draw was the political fate of Morales, a grower of coca, the raw ingredient for cocaine. He is the first self-identified indigenous president in Bolivia's 183-year history.

Voters had to decide on Sunday whether to recall Morales and eight of the nine governors in a climate made tense in recent days by hunger strikes, road blockages and warnings that violence could erupt in the coming week.

Sunday, however, provided a calm respite on a day that felt like a festive holiday. As in past elections, vehicles were banned from the streets, alcohol sales were prohibited and voting was obligatory. Many voters walked their dogs to polling stations.

The next volatile dispute likely will be Morales' move to seek public approval for a proposed constitution already written by an assembly stacked with his supporters.

Vice President Alvaro Garcia confirmed to McClatchy Newspapers in an exclusive interview Sunday that the Morales administration now will seek the two-thirds vote required in Congress to call a referendum on the new constitution.

This constitution would allow Morales to run for re-election, would codify more government control over the economy and would create 37 indigenous nations within Bolivia with special rights for their indigenous citizens.

"We want to consolidate the changes we've been making in Bolivia," said Garcia, seated in the Gold Salon at the presidential palace, his right pinkie - like everyone who voted on Sunday -- stained by blue ink.

"We know that the fascist opposition will do everything it can to oppose it."

Garcia said that their government plans to continue turning over more economic power to the state.

About 14 percent of the economy was in state hands when it took office 30 months ago. Today, the government controls 23 percent of the economy, Garcia said, after nationalizing industrial, agricultural and energy companies.

"Our goal is 30 percent," Garcia said. "That's about right for a country of our size."

Under Morales, Bolivia has been hewing closely to the policies of its close ally, Venezuela's Hugo Chavez, who Garcia said has given $100 million during the past 18 months to local mayors for dozens of public works projects - schools, health clinics and roads.

Morales has sharply raised taxes on foreign natural gas producers, began giving handouts to the parents of schoolchildren and created a pension for people over 60.

Juana Yapu, 62, cited the pension as a decisive reason to vote for Morales.

"He worries about the poor," Yapu said, wearing the traditional Aymara Indian dress - a bowler hat, shawl and long skirt. "I'm so proud that he's an indigenous president. I never thought we would have one."

Gabriel Olarte voted for Morales in 2005 hoping that Morales would fulfill the promise of change in a country where corruption and massive poverty had discredited the traditional political parties.

"But Evo has created a lot of conflict among regions," Olarte said. "Things have gotten worse."

McClatchy Newspapers 2008

McClatchy Washington Bureau is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere in the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

Commenting FAQs | Terms of Service