SANTA CRUZ DE LA SIERRA, Bolivia — Official election results released Monday showed a controversial statute that would grant autonomy to this country's richest province had built an overwhelming lead in Sunday's violence-marred referendum and was on its way to victory.
The results thrilled leaders in the eastern Bolivian province of Santa Cruz, who had defied President Evo Morales by putting the statute up for a vote. If implemented, the statute would give the province powers equivalent to that of a U.S. state, such as the right to form its own police, set tax and land-use policies and elect a governor and legislature. Most state functions are now centralized in Bolivia's federal government.
Morales, who's a close ally of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, has called the statute separatist and illegal and warned Santa Cruz leaders not to implement it. His spokesman, Ivan Canelas, however, took a softer approach Monday by inviting Santa Cruz's prefect, who's the equivalent of a governor, and other prefects from the country's nine provinces to discuss the idea of provincial autonomies.
Three other eastern Bolivian provinces, Beni, Pando and Tarija, will vote on similar autonomy statutes in coming weeks.
Ana Maria Romero de Campero, the director of the democracy-building group Fundacion Unir Bolivia, said the next few days will be crucial to determining whether the two sides choose negotiation over confrontation.
"There needs to be a big effort nationwide now because we're seeing a very strong polarization, not just politically but regionally," Romero de Campero said. "Right now, the political center is never expressed."
On Monday, U.S. State Department deputy spokesman Tom Casey called on the Bolivian government and opposition "to return to their dialogue" while supporting "Bolivia's unity and territorial integrity."
With 56 percent of polling stations counted Monday, the autonomy statute claimed the support of 85.6 percent of voters, while 14.4 percent opposed it, Santa Cruz's electoral court announced. Exit polls released Sunday night showed the autonomy statute winning as much as 85 percent of the province's nearly 570,000 valid votes.
The country's top electoral court has refused to certify the results and has called the referendum illegal because only the country's national legislature can call referendums. About 34 percent of voters didn't cast ballots Sunday, higher than in recent elections, the province's results showed.
Eduardo Paz, the president of Santa Cruz's chamber of commerce, said many voters were scared off by violent protests launched by autonomy opponents in towns around the province and in the poor outskirts of the city of Santa Cruz.
The protesters had burned cardboard ballot boxes and attacked suspected autonomy supporters, with more than two dozen people injured and one person killed in the street battles. The affected neighborhoods were quiet Monday morning.
Many of the protesters accused Santa Cruz leaders of trying to secede from this impoverished 9.1-million-person country and expressed support for a draft constitution written by Morales' allies that grants autonomy to Bolivia's indigenous majority.
Paz said the protests failed and that Santa Cruz leaders had emerged from the vote strengthened.
"In spite of the violence incited by (the president's Movement to Socialism party), the people had the discipline to vote peacefully," Paz said. "And the results are definitive. The whole nation is going in this direction."
(Heger, a McClatchy special correspondent, reported from Santa Cruz de la Sierra, Bolivia. Chang reported from Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.)