LA PAZ, Bolivia — After 16 tumultuous months of debate, allies of Bolivia's leftist President Evo Morales hurriedly approved nearly all of a new constitution Sunday morning in a marathon overnight session.
The proposed constitution grants more power to Bolivia's indigenous majority, abolishes the opposition-led Senate; imposes more state control over natural gas, minerals and other natural resource; and permits presidents to be elected to two consecutive five-year terms, a proposal that Morales's opponents call an authoritarian power grab.
Bolivian voters must approve the constitution in a referendum that's tentatively scheduled for as late as next September. The assembly, which met in the mining town of Oruro, failed to approve only one article by the required two-thirds vote. That measure, which limits the size of private land holdings, will be the subject of a separate referendum.
Morales called the charter a "giant new political constitution for the Bolivian state" and said it would usher in the "dignification" of the country.
Indigenous groups, miners and other Morales loyalists took to the streets and celebrated the 411-article charter as the start of a new era for this impoverished, 9.1 million-person country. Opposition leaders largely boycotted the constitutional assembly, called the document illegal and pledged to launch protests against it.
"It's overall not a bad constitution, but the problem is the official party didn't listen to anybody else," said Samuel Doria Medina of the opposition National Unity party. "It seems this matter of presidential reelection was Morales' final goal all along."
Former President Jorge Quiroga, the head of the opposition party Podemos, said the assembly had broken its own rules by convening this weekend session less than 24 hours in advance and hadn't achieved a two-thirds majority because 90 of the assembly's 255 member were absent.
Podemos representatives boycotted the meeting, showing up briefly Saturday night only to chant "Illegal!"
All over South America, countries led by leftists such as Morales are rewriting their constitutions to strengthen executive powers. On Dec. 2, Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, a Morales ally, narrowly lost a referendum that would have allowed him to seek reelection indefinitely.
Bolivia's constitutional assembly has been marked by controversy since its start in Aug. 2006, when a dispute over voting rules stalled the proceedings for nine months.
The tensions turned violent four months ago when residents of Sucre, where the assembly had been based, launched violent protests demanding that the new constitution move the country's legislative and executive branches back to their town, which was Bolivia's capital until 1899 but now hosts only the Supreme Court.
Morales' allies in the assembly, responding to protests in the capital of La Paz, tabled the issue in August.
Rushing to meet a Dec. 14 deadline, and with few opposition representatives present, the assembly approved a draft copy of the constitution on Nov. 24 at a military installation on the outskirts of Sucre while street battles raged outside. The turmoil left three protesters dead and more than 300 injured.
Last week, Morales tried to calm tensions by calling a referendum on his mandate and those of the country's nine governors, six of whom are members of the opposition. The governors have agreed to the plan, and Morales presented legislation Sunday setting up such a vote.
The new constitution is likely to renew the tensions. Opposition leaders say hundreds of people have launched hunger strikes to protest the assembly, and they promise more dissent.
"What they came up with today in Oruro is far from the original spirit of writing a new constitution," said lawyer Rene Bellot from the opposition-led city of Santa Cruz de la Sierra. "Democracy is ill."