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Bolivian Vote Expected to Boost Morales

Amid campaigning for a constituent assembly, critics complain of a perceived power grab, while supporters see a democratic revolution.

July 02, 2006|Patrick J. McDonnell | Times Staff Writer

LA PAZ, Bolivia — Bolivians go to the polls today in an election that is expected to consolidate the power of President Evo Morales and expose regional and ethnic fault lines in this deeply divided nation.

Voters will elect a national assembly that is to draft a new constitution, an effort that the leftist Morales has championed since taking office in January.

On another ballot issue, the president has urged Bolivians to vote "no" on a referendum on regional autonomy that is in large part a reaction to fear of a power grab by Morales.

Most analysts predict Morales' party will win a substantial majority in the new 255-member constituent assembly, though not necessarily the two-thirds needed to guarantee passage of the president's wide-ranging agenda of indigenous power, agrarian reform, expanded nationalization of natural resources and -- according to critics -- perpetuation of Morales' increasingly authoritarian rule.

"In last year's elections we only won the government," Morales has declared, "now we want to win political power."

With polls indicating that more than 70% of Bolivians support him, the charismatic Morales has called the new constitution a chance for a "second liberation of the Bolivian people," the first having been his electoral victory in December. Morales, an Aymara Indian from hardscrabble origins, is the first president elected from the nation's long-repressed indigenous masses.

Morales' image and slogans grace walls, posters and television screens across the country, which some detractors view as a sign of a growing cult of personality. Morales, who catapulted to national prominence as a union leader representing impoverished growers of coca leaves, which are used to make cocaine, has become one of the most visible of Latin America's array of new left-leaning leaders.

In less than six months in office, Morales has drastically altered the course of South America's poorest country, nationalizing the energy industry on May 1, proclaiming the primacy of Bolivia's indigenous people and attacking Washington at every opportunity while embracing Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, a fierce U.S. critic who also pushed constitutional reform. Morales has received counsel from Venezuelan oilmen and invited hundreds of Cuban doctors and educators to Bolivia.

Morales, who vowed to be "the worst nightmare" for U.S. policymakers if elected, has accused Washington of conspiring against his government, scheming to assassinate him, and, most recently, infiltrating Bolivia with military personnel "camouflaged" as students and tourists.

U.S. officials have called the charges absurd, and President Bush has bemoaned the "erosion of democracy" in Bolivia and Venezuela.

Morales' constitutional proposals includes elevating the rainbow flag of Andean Indians to the same status as the national tricolor flag. He also would bestow official status on Bolivia's principal Indian languages, Aymara and Quechua, making them legally equal to Spanish.

"This is a fight for independence, for liberation," Morales has said of the constitutional reform. "We want to remake Bolivia."

The election campaign has been marked by considerable mudslinging, with the president's critics exploiting fear of Venezuelan and Cuban domination, and Morales accusing the U.S. of meddling.

Many voters seem confused or apathetic.

"There's a lot of disinformation," said Mario Arteaga, 64, a bookkeeper. "The truth is I'm not sure who I'll vote for."

Also reportedly high on the constitutional agenda of Morales' Movement Toward Socialism party is presidential reelection, which is banned in Bolivia. Morales has said he would not oppose such a move, which opponents say is aimed at extending his rule beyond his current five-year term. The opposition is crafting a presidential impeachment statute.

"The dream of Evo Morales is a new constitution where he can have complete control: legislative, executive, judicial and electoral control," said Carlos Toranzo, a political analyst critical of the president.

To his supporters, however, Morales' constitutional reforms are essential for a nation where social mobility has historically been restricted to a mostly white and mixed-race elite working in concert with foreign investors. Constitutional change was a key demand of protesters whose battle to gain control of water and natural gas resources helped topple two governments, in 2003 and 2005.

"We are living a democratic revolution in Bolivia," said Cesar Rojas, a political analyst sympathetic to Morales. "Every revolution produces a constitution.... This new constitution will be written via the vote, not through imposition."

Underlying the referendum on regional autonomy is a deep anxiety about Morales among many of Bolivia's 8.5 million residents. The proposal would empower provincial governments and dilute the influence of the government in La Paz.

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