Bolivia faces August showdown as autonomy wins again

LA PAZ, Bolivia — A controversial round of autonomy referendums defying leftist President Evo Morales concluded Sunday with the apparent approval by voters in the gas-rich province of Tarija of a statute that would grant provincial authorities powers similar to those of officials in a U.S. state.

Tarija is the fourth of Bolivia’s nine provinces to approve such a statute in referendums that Morales has called illegal because they were not called by the country's Congress. Morales says the votes by the four provinces are an effort o split the country, but supporters say they only want to reform the country's heavily centralized government and better distribute power.

Bolivia now prepares for a nationwide Aug. 10 recall vote that could end the mandates of Morales, his vice president and the country's eight currently sitting governors. Morales called for the recall vote in an effort to determine who has the most popular support, the governors of the provinces seeking autonomy or Morales, Bolivia's first president from the country's majority Indian populationt whose approval rating remains at about 60 percent. ( A ninth province, Chuquisaca, will not participate in the recall referendum because its voters will elect a new governor later this month.)

Sunday's referendum sparked special interest in South America because Tarija accounts for 86 percent of Bolivia’s reserves of natural gas, the country's biggest export and a major source of energy in Brazil and Argentina.

According to a quick count of polling sites conducted by the research firm Ipsos Apoyo, 80 percent of those voting in Tarija approved the autonomy statute Sunday, mirroring the same wide margins of victory seen in the earlier referendums in the provinces of Santa Cruz, Pando and Beni.

But the quick count also showed about 35 percent of Tarija's 173,231 registered voters didn't cast ballots Sunday, mirroring high abstention rates in the other referendums. Morales has called the abstention rates proof that people opposed to the autonomy statutes were not voting. Official results will take days to be completed and released.

Tarija pulled off Sunday's vote largely without the kind of polling place violence that had marred earlier autonomy referendums, which began last month. Nonetheless, an Army officer and 19 others were arrested Saturday on suspicion of setting off dynamite at a television station in the city of Yacuiba.

The stakes are high for Bolivia's central government, which always has controlled what takes place in the provinces, where local officials do not have authority to set spending priorities or tax rates. Tarija Gov. Mario Cossio threatened to stop sharing the province's gas revenue with Bolivia's national government if the autonomy referendum passed. The province received $240 million in gas revenue last year, a fraction of Bolivia's $1.57 billion in sales of oil and natural gas, which the central government distributed to Bolivia's eight other provinces as well.

"Nobody will dare touch a single cent that belongs to this province," Cossio told a crowd of thousands at a Thursday rally.

Morales spokesman Ivan Canelas said Sunday that the Aug. 10 recall vote will resolve the autonomy standoff, which is the biggest crisis to confront Morales since he was sworn in two and a half years ago.

"We are going to insist on dialogue after the Aug. 10 recall referendum, which is where the wisdom and the vote of the Bolivian people will be established," Canelas said.

Political analyst Gonzalo Chavez said he doubted any of the votes would end the crisis or persuade opposition leaders to negotiate with Morales.

Adding to tensions, the government plans to schedule another nationwide referendum around a draft constitution written by Morales allies that would let the president run for consecutive reelection and would put autonomy for the country's indigenous majorities ahead of provincial autonomy.

"The recall vote has been said to be a way of going forward, but it will not lay out any points for establishing dialogue," Chavez said.