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Bolivians vote on fate of Morales

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  • Greg Cannon
    http://www.cnn.com/2008/WORLD/americas/08/10/bolivia.referendum.ap/index.html updated 9:49 a.m. EDT, Sun August 10, 2008 Bolivians vote on fate of Morales *
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      http://www.cnn.com/2008/WORLD/americas/08/10/bolivia.referendum.ap/index.html

      updated 9:49 a.m. EDT, Sun August 10, 2008

      Bolivians vote on fate of Morales

      * Story Highlights
      * Bolivian voters decide whether President Evo Morales should stay in office
      * Referendum proposed by Bolivian leader to try to break political stalemate
      * Morales was voted into office in 2005 for a six-year term

      LA PAZ, Bolivia (AP) -- Voters were deciding Sunday whether President Evo Morales should stay in office in a referendum proposed by the Bolivian leader to try to break a political stalemate in the bitterly divided Andean nation.

      "Democracy is to be defined at the ballot box, not through violence," Bolivian President Evo Morales says.

      Also subject to recall were eight of the country's nine governors -- just two of them allies of Bolivia's first indigenous president.

      Morales, a coca growers' leader who took office 2½ years ago, is hoping for backing strong enough to revive his stalled crusade to remedy age-old inequities in South America's poorest country.

      But his leftist agenda faces relentless opposition in the unabashedly capitalistic eastern half of the country, where protesters blockaded airports to keep Morales from touching down for campaign visits last week and forced him to cancel an energy summit in the natural gas-rich province of Tarija.

      Pre-election polls indicated Morales and his most bitter foes among the governors would hold onto their posts. The country's recently elected ninth governor, of the central Chuquisaca province, where pro- and anti-Morales forces are about evenly divided, is exempt from the referendum.

      Under the law that set the referendum's rules, a politician can be ousted if the "no" votes he receives exceed the percentage by which he was elected.

      It remains unclear, however, whether everyone will honor the results of Sunday's vote -- and not just because their visions of Bolivia diverge so radically. A separate ruling by the National Electoral Court stipulates that the "no" vote must top 50 percent to oust the governors.

      Victor Hugo Cardenas -- an Aymara native like Morales who was vice president from 1993 to 1997 -- considers Bolivia's president a divisive disaster and predicted a messy outcome that would breed chaos and make Bolivia "even more difficult to govern."

      The battle for Bolivia hinges on land ownership and natural gas income. Four eastern provinces have resisted Morales' insistence that the central government control energy profits and decide how to distribute them. The four declared themselves autonomous this year in largely symbolic votes.

      While vowing not to expropriate private property, Morales has made an exception for fallow land in the east that he wants impoverished Indians to farm. The plan has made little headway, but still infuriated wealthy landowners.

      Natural gas and precious metals revenues have boomed since Morales nationalized the gas fields in 2006 and renegotiated extraction contracts. Bolivia now keeps about 85 percent of these profits, and combined with rising global energy and mineral prices, exports have nearly doubled since 2005 to $4.7 billion last year.

      That revenue stream grew Bolivia's economy by 4.7 percent last year, increasing foreign reserves to $6.5 billion. But inflation is running at an annual rate of 14.7 percent.

      Populist measures that have endeared Morales to the poor indigenous majority include handouts to schoolchildren and the elderly. He has proposed a pension plan to extend protection broadly to workers in the informal economy and stay-at-home mothers.

      Twenty percent of Bolivians have no access to basic services.

      Morales, who won election in December 2005 with 53.7 percent of the vote, promoted Sunday's referendum as a way of calling his opponents' bluff.

      He's hoping it will allow his Movement Toward Socialism to set a vote on a draft constitution that would give indigenous groups more power and enable Morales to run for a second consecutive five-year term. It was written by Morales' allies after opposition parties walked out of a constitutional assembly last year.

      The opposition, meanwhile, lacks a unifying national leader.

      The biggest and richest of the four eastern lowland provinces where it is centered is soy-producing Santa Cruz, where resentment of Morales is virulent. Last week Percy Fernandez, the mayor of Santa Cruz's eponymous capital, called on the military to overthrow the "useless government."

      Opposition leaders also accuse the central government of letting Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez meddle in Bolivian affairs by advising Morales and providing tens of millions of dollars in aid.
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