Bolivia's Morales sets recall referendum in effort to resolve crisis

RIO DE JANEIRO, Brazil — Bolivian President Evo Morales, trying to ease a deepening political crisis, on Monday scheduled for Aug. 10 a sweeping recall referendum that would allow voters to cut short his term in office, as well as those of his vice president and the country's eight provincial governors.

Morales said the vote would resolve a political showdown between his leftist administration and five governors who have pushed statutes that would give their regions more independence from the federal government. Morales has called the autonomy campaigns illegal and attempts to split this impoverished country.

"The Bolivian people have the right to decide and resolve the differences of authorities elected by the Bolivian people," Morales said after approving the referendum. "Above any individual, personal, sectorial or regional interest, in first place comes the unity of the country."

The governors have said they'll respect the results of the recall referendum. Whether the vote would bridge political divides, however, was another matter, said Manfred Reyes Villa, governor of the central Bolivian province of Cochabamba and one of Morales' most vocal opponents.

"The referendum will not resolve any of this crisis," Reyes Villa said. "We could all win the recall vote, and then we'd be in the same situation. This is just a political maneuver."

Since becoming president in January 2006, Morales has clashed with opposition leaders over everything from government plans to break up large farms in eastern Bolivia to the autonomy statutes sought by more than half of the country.

On May 4, voters in the country's richest and second most-populous province, Santa Cruz, overwhelmingly approved a referendum granting themselves powers equivalent to that of a U.S. state, such as setting tax and land-use policy and forming a police force. Morales called the vote illegal, and the country's top electoral court refuses to certify the results.

Most analysts, however, agree the Santa Cruz victory hurt Morales. Three other eastern Bolivians provinces — Beni, Pando and Tarija — have scheduled similar autonomy referendums through the end of June. Reyes Villa said Cochabamba leaders would organize their own vote before the Aug. 10 recall referendum.

The Morales government plans its own, yet-to-be-scheduled nationwide vote on a draft constitution that would, among other measures, let Morales run for immediate re-election, grant autonomy to indigenous communities, and limit the size of private land holdings.

Political scientist Fernando Mayorga said the recall referendum, instead of easing tensions, could aggravate divides by ushering in possibly violent electoral campaigns for and against Morales and the governors.

"The campaign against Evo Morales, in particular, will raise the likelihood of conflicts between followers of the government and opposition," Mayorga said. "What we need is a political agreement to bring the autonomy statutes and the constitution together in one document."

After approving the recall vote, Morales invited governors to meet with him Monday afternoon to work toward such an agreement, a call that was ignored by opposition governors.

Morales originally suggested that the recall referendum amid rising political tensions in December, but, after the country's lower house of parliament approved it, Bolivia's Senate stalled on considering it until last week.

Analysts said the rules of the recall vote favor Morales because it would oust an official only if a higher percentage — and a larger number — of people vote against him than originally voted for him when he was elected.

Morales was elected in late 2005 with 53.74 percent of the vote, making up about 1.54 million ballots, which was an historically high level of support. Opposition governors won their elections with support ranging from 38 percent to 48 percent, while recent polls show Morales' approval ratings hovering around 55 percent.

If Morales loses, a new election would be called to replace him. Mayorga said the president couldn't run again because the constitution prohibits presidents from serving two consecutive terms. If Morales survives the vote, however, he could appoint replacements for ousted governors.