Bolivia's Morales Wins Referendum Vote

Bolivia's President Evo Morales, right, delivers a speech from the balcony of the presidential palace in La Paz, Bolivia, Aug. 10, 2008.
AP Photo/Juan Karita
A bold gamble by President Evo Morales to break a political deadlock and re-energize his leftist revolution paid off as Bolivia's voters resoundingly endorsed him in a recall referendum.

More than 63 percent of voters in this bitterly divided Andean nation ratified the mandate of Bolivia's first indigenous leader and his vice president, Alvaro Garcia, in Sunday's vote, according to partial unofficial results.

Eight of the country's nine governors were also subject to recall - and two Morales foes were among the three ousted, according to a private tally of votes from 1,000 of the country's 22,700 polling stations.

Morales had sought the referendum to try to topple governors who have frustrated his bid to improve the plight of Bolivia's long-suppressed indigenous majority, which is concentrated in the country's barren western highlands.

His leftist agenda has met with bitter opposition in the landlocked country's unabashedly capitalistic east, where protesters who accuse him of being a lackey of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez blockaded airports last week to keep Morales and his ministers from touching down for campaign visits.

All four governors there easily survived Sunday's plebiscite, as expected.

But Morales did surprisingly well in those states. In one, Pando, he was endorsed by 51 percent of voters, while he won 40 percent approval or better in the other three, according to the vote tally by the Ipsos-Apoyo firm for the ATB television network.

First official results were expected on Monday.

"What happened today is important not only for Bolivians but for all Latin Americans," Morales told several thousand cheering supporters Sunday night from the balcony of the presidential palace in La Paz. "I dedicate this victory to all the revolutionaries in the world."

As supporters chanted "firm hand," urging him to get tough with his lowland rivals, Morales instead extended them a hand, calling on all the country's governors to work with him "for the unity of all Bolivians" - especially in fighting against extreme poverty.

The 53.7 percent that Morales received in winning office in December 2005 had been the previous best electoral showing for a Bolivian leader.

The Aymara politician has since nationalized the country's natural gas fields and main telephone company, but the conservative opposition has stymied his attempts to seize unproductive eastern lands from wealthy estate holders and give it to impoverished Indians.

Morales has also been unable to get a date set for a nationwide vote on a new constitution that would give indigenous groups more power and allow him to be re-elected to a second five-year term. The opposition walked out of the constituent assembly that wrote the document.

On Sunday, Morales gained politically with the defeat of opposition governors in the highland province of La Paz and in Cochabamba, seat of his coca-growers movement. Cochabamba Gov. Manfred Reyes, a conservative three-time presidential candidate, refused to recognize Sunday's results, calling the referendum unconstitutional and setting the stage for a potential showdown in the volatile frontier province.

Under the law that established the referendum's rules, ousted Sunday were officeholders whose "no" votes exceeded the percentage by which they were elected.

Morales can now name temporary replacements pending provincial elections.

Political analyst Kathryn Ledebur of the Andean Information Network said Sunday's results could let Morales "try to go ahead with the fight against poverty ... or it could just entrench the situation further."

Gov. Ruben Costas of Santa Cruz, the soy-growing lowland center of opposition to Morales defiantly called Sunday's outcome "a defeat for centralism." He said his province would proceed with creating its own police force and call elections for a provincial legislature.

Santa Cruz was the first of four states to declare themselves autonomous this year in what have so far been largely symbolic moves.

The four - Beni, Pando, Santa Cruz and Tarija - have resisted Morales' insistence that the central government control energy profits and decide how to distribute them.

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.