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Apparent Double Blow for Morales

Bolivian leader's slate falls well short of his expectations in assembly election; an autonomy measure he opposes wins in four provinces.

July 03, 2006|Patrick J. McDonnell | Times Staff Writer

LA PAZ, Bolivia — A slate of candidates allied with President Evo Morales failed to win control of a new constitutional assembly Sunday, and voters in four of Bolivia's nine provinces chose autonomy in an apparent double blow to Morales' bid to consolidate power, unofficial results showed.

Morales and his Movement Toward Socialism party outpolled other parties for a new, 255-delegate national assembly charged with rewriting the nation's constitution, early projections showed. But the preliminary results indicated that Morales' party would garner about half of the assembly seats, far short of the two-thirds needed to dominate the body, and well below the 70% victory that Morales had predicted. Other parties were splitting the remaining seats, the surveys showed.

Morales, a leftist elected Bolivia's first indigenous president in December, had urged voters to reject the autonomy measure, which he called the product of "oligarchic groups" in the relatively prosperous eastern province of Santa Cruz, an opposition bastion.

In five provinces, voters appeared to be following Morales' advice and rejected autonomy. Those provinces include La Paz, the administrative capital, and much of the Andean highlands that are Morales' home base.

But the unofficial count indicated that almost 80% of voters in Santa Cruz cast ballots for the autonomy measure, which was in large part a reaction against Morales' wide-ranging agenda for bolstered indigenous power, agrarian reform and nationalization of natural resources.

Much is at stake economically in the strident autonomy debate. About 90% of the nation's natural gas reserves are found in the four provinces that voted for greater independence. Bolivia has the continent's second-largest natural gas reserves, after Venezuela.

Morales nationalized gas and oil industries on May 1 and has been seeking to bolster gas revenues for Bolivia, South America's poorest nation. Gas is Bolivia's major asset.

As the early results became known, Crucenos, as residents of subtropical Santa Cruz are known, went to the streets to celebrate, shouting, "Autonomy! Autonomy!" and dancing in the central plaza while waving Bolivian flags.

Similar celebrations erupted in three other lowland provinces -- Beni, Pando and Tarija -- where early results showed the autonomy proposal leading.

The election has highlighted deep divisions in Bolivia between the Andean highlands and the so-called "half moon" of lowland provinces to the east, north and south, where many are dissatisfied with Morales' rule. The president has often lauded his highland Indian roots, but his agenda to shift power to indigenous groups has generated a backlash in provinces with ethnically mixed populations.

In La Paz, voters opposing autonomy expressed fears that natural gas revenues could be bottled up in the east should the measure for bolstered regional self-rule pass.

"We don't want autonomy: It will divide the country," argued Paz Catacora, a 58-year-old truck driver in the gritty El Alto suburb and a member of Morales' party. "Our country's resources must be shared."

But Morales' opponents have championed greater autonomy as a check against his ambitions to consolidate power and realize his socialist-indigenous vision for the country.

"It is Evo Morales and his fundamentalist policies that are dividing the country," said Gonzalo Bilbao, 32, an economist who voted against Morales' ticket in an upscale southern La Paz neighborhood. "It used to be that the Indians were discriminated against. Now it is those of us who have light skin who face discrimination."

The autonomy movement aims to give greater fiscal and political independence to the regions in a country where power has long been centralized in La Paz. In practice, however, experts say it is still unclear how autonomy would work.

The new constitutional assembly is scheduled to meet Aug. 6 to begin deliberations to rewrite Bolivia's charter. The autonomy question is expected to be at the top of its agenda, along with a proposal to replace the current Congress with a more representative body.

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Special correspondent Oscar Ordonez in La Paz contributed to this report.

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