LA PAZ, Bolivia — Political tensions in this divided country threaten to deepen Sunday when voters in two Bolivian provinces decide whether to declare themselves autonomous from the leftist government of President Evo Morales.
The referendums scheduled in Beni and Pando provinces are the latest in a wave of autonomy votes that present the socialist president with his strongest challenge since taking office in January 2006. The votes have also sparked fears that this impoverished nation of 9.1 million may be on the verge of division or civil war.
Beni and Pando are sparsely populated, agricultural provinces stretching across Bolivia's northern tip, with a combined population of about 450,000 people. They are expected to vote for autonomy.
Voters in Bolivia's richest and second most-populous province, Santa Cruz, overwhelmingly approved an autonomy statute on May 4, and a fourth province, Tarija, which is the center of the country's booming hydrocarbons industry, will vote on a similar measure June 22.
Morales has called the referendums illegal and separatist but has so far refrained from sending in troops or police to stop the votes. Some analysts, however, speculate the government may make a stronger show of force this weekend, especially after anti-Morales activists violently prevented the president from addressing a rally in the historic capital of Sucre a week ago.
Soldiers and police have reportedly moved into Beni and Pando in the run-up to Sunday's vote. Gen. Luis Trigo, chief commander of the country's military, said Thursday that troops would be allowed to use lethal force to protect the president or follow other orders.
Already, pro-government activists have blocked some roads in Pando hoping to stop ballot boxes from reaching polling sites. Scuffles broke out Thursday as autonomy supporters attempted without success to break through the blockade.
Pro-autonomy activists have also taken to the streets and are reportedly forming self-defense militias. In the town of Guayamerin in Beni, activists even closed the local airport to stop government officials from arriving.
Last week in Sucre, anti-government activists forced federal troops to carry the provincial flag of Chuquisaca and made Morales supporters strip and kneel in the city's main plaza. Last year, three people died in anti-government protests in the same city.
"The government is facing a combative and difficult opposition, and there's now a policy of permanent confrontation," said Santa Cruz-based constitutional lawyer Jose Antonio de Chazal. "This could result in more deaths."
Autonomy supporters deny any separatist ambitions and argue that the statutes simply give provinces powers equivalent to U.S. states, such as letting them collect taxes and form police forces. Under Bolivia's centralized system, decisions about everything from schools to hospitals are issued from the capital of La Paz in the country's mountainous west.
Ana Melena, president of a civic committee made up of Pando business and political leaders, said La Paz has long neglected her 63,000-person province, where many people lack basic services such as potable water.
"We need to follow our own paths and create jobs," Melena said. "But autonomy doesn't mean division. In fact, it'll strengthen the unity of the country."
Morales' Movement to Socialism Party has also promised decentralization through a draft constitution hastily approved in December by the president's allies, which emphasizes autonomy for the country's indigenous majority. A nationwide vote on the constitution has yet to be scheduled.
Government officials have called the provincial autonomy statutes illegal because Bolivian law only lets the country's congress call referendums. They've also labeled the votes power grabs by wealthy eastern Bolivian landowners trying to set their own land-use and migration policies.
"As the government, we hope that there isn't (violence), but it's foreseeable that citizens will react," said Fabian Yacsik, the country's vice minister of decentralization. "We find ourselves with statutes that have been written by a few, without the participation of the people."
Morales has tried to ease tensions by inviting opposition leaders to negotiate a compromise, a call the opposition has said it'll ignore until at least after the June 22 vote in Tarija.
Opposition leaders have agreed, however, to an Aug. 10 recall referendum called by Morales that could oust the president, vice president and eight of the country's nine governors. The province of Chuquisaca currently has only an interim governor.
And while Santa Cruz has been slow to implement its autonomy statute, the pace could quicken after the Tarija vote, analysts said.
The two sides "aren't going to reach any agreements," said political analyst Fernando Molina. "Everyone will follow the current road of confrontation."
Special correspondent Ayala reported from La Paz and Chang from Rio de Janeiro.