Two more provinces in Bolivia approve autonomy statutes

LA PAZ, Bolivia — Amid scattered violence, voters in two Bolivian provinces appeared to approve controversial autonomy statutes on Sunday, challenging the leftist government of President Evo Morales, who has called the votes illegal and labled them bids to divide the country.

Yet polling data also showed that Morales possibly scored a political win, with turnout rates in Beni and Pando provinces unusually low, backing government charges that people opposed to the statutes were sitting out the vote.

The research firm Ipsos Apoyo found in a quick count of polling sites that 80.2 percent of voters in Beni and 81.8 percent of voters in Pando supported the autonomy measures, which would grant them powers equivalent to that of U.S. states. Both are rural provinces in the country's northeast.

The quick count calculated a no-show rate of 34.5 percent in Beni and 46.5 percent in Pando. Final results aren't expected until later this week, and Bolivian law automatically nullifies election results if less than half of valid voters cast ballots.

While the two provinces make up just 5 percent of Bolivia's 9.1 million people, their referendums are the latest in a wave of autonomy measures that has pitched this impoverished country into a constitutional crisis.

Voters in Bolivia's richest and second most-populous province, Santa Cruz, overwhelmingly approved a similar autonomy statute May 4, although the no-show rate there hit 35 percent. Another autonomy referendum will be held June 22 in Tarija province, home to the country's giant natural gas industry.

The referendums have driven a wedge between Bolivia's indigenous, mountainous west, where support for the president is high, and its more mixed-race, richer eastern lowlands, where many have long desired autonomy.

Morales has said only the country's congress can schedule such votes and has refused to recognize the referendum results. While refraining from sending in troops to block the votes, Morales has warned provincial leaders not to carry out their statutes and withhold tax revenue.

Morales has also accused U.S. officials of backing the referendums to weaken his socialist government and has received the support of ally Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez and other leftist leaders in the region.

"Some families are asking for independence," Morales said Sunday during a rally in the western Bolivian city of Oruro. "Some governors talk about new republics. But we cannot become divided."

Pro-government supporters tried to interrupt balloting Sunday by blocking roads and intercepting ballot boxes across Beni and Pando, sparking confrontations with pro-autonomy activists.

In the town of Filadelfia in Pando, Morales supporters burned ballot boxes and at one point even held several election officials hostage. Pro-government activists also attacked the mayor of the town of Yucumo in Beni province and in Trinidad, the capital of Beni, they threw rocks at a car transporting the pro-autonomy governors of Santa Cruz and Tarija.

The violence prompted Vegar Bye, an observer with the U.N.'s Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, to voice his fear Sunday of "direct confrontation, with arms."

Government officials defended the violent protests, saying they were legitimate expressions of outrage over an illegal process.

"The sectors representing the majority expressed their opposition to the statutes," Government Minister Alfredo Rada said Sunday night. "They have expressed it especially in Pando, where it appears the attempt to impose the statutes has been firmly rejected."

Autonomy supporters said they had no intention of dividing the country and were only seeking to reform Bolivia's heavily centralized system, which they argue has held back development in far-flung provinces.

The autonomy statutes let provinces form their own police, elect provincial legislatures and, in some cases, sign treaties with other countries.

Pro-autonomy activists have also resorted to violence over the past week, with anti-government activists attacking Morales supporters May 24 in the city of Sucre and preventing the president from speaking to a rally there.

"What you have decided today will be carried out completely," Beni Gov. Ernesto Suarez said to supporters Sunday. "Thank you Benianos for saying not to violence and to centralism."

Morales has tried to defuse the crisis by calling an Aug. 10 recall referendum that could end his mandate as well as that of Vice President Alvaro Garcia Linera and the governors of eight of the country's nine provinces. Chuquisaca province has an interim governor.

The president also hopes to usher in his own reforms in a draft constitution approved by his allies in December. That document, which emphasizes autonomy for the country's indigenous majority, must still be approved in a yet-to-be-scheduled nationwide referendum.

"We are going to guarantee autonomy," Morales said Sunday, "but a true autonomy, autonomy for the national majority, for the people and not for powerful groups."