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Bolivian Vote Signals Desire for Dialogue

Morales had predicted a clear-cut mandate for his socialist agenda, but the divided nation seems to want a more conciliatory course.

July 04, 2006|Patrick J. McDonnell | Times Staff Writer

LA PAZ, Bolivia — President Evo Morales went into Sunday's elections for a constitutional assembly brashly forecasting a runaway mandate for his socialist agenda of economic and social reforms.

Instead, the results pointed to an unexpected urgency for one of Latin America's most visible and outspoken new leftist leaders to build domestic alliances and engage in dialogue.

A chief executive who has reveled in confrontation will be obliged to seek conciliation. Many here call it a good thing in a deeply divided nation where some fear Morales is heading down the autocratic path of Venezuela's Hugo Chavez, his political mentor and advisor.

"It's a positive sign for democracy that the government is obligated to make pacts," said Carlos Toranzo, a political analyst here. "With these results, it is clear that there will not be a constitution 'a la Chavez.' "

Morales, who took office less than six months ago, aggressively pushed for Sunday's national vote to elect a new assembly tasked with rewriting the constitution. To many, his actions mirrored Chavez's 1999 convening of a constitutional assembly that ultimately bolstered executive clout in Caracas.

"The danger of the imposition of unilateral viewpoints has diminished," said Samuel Doria Medina, a Bolivian businessman and leader of the opposition National Unity Front.

Official electoral results were still trickling in Monday, but unofficial counts accepted by all parties gave Morales' party about 135 delegates, representing more than half the 255-member constitutional body but short of the two-thirds needed to dominate it. Morales had predicted a victory of up to 80%.

The president and his allies were seeking deals Monday with smaller parties in an attempt to garner a two-thirds majority in the assembly, which convenes Aug. 6 in the colonial city of Sucre. Morales has vowed to throw an opening party rivaling his inauguration bash, and plans to invite leaders from throughout the Americas and Europe.

Meanwhile, four of Bolivia's nine provinces voted for autonomy, in a direct slap at the policies of Morales, who urged Bolivians to reject the autonomy referendum. It is still unclear, however, whether the four provinces will win any measure of autonomy under the new constitution. Two of the pro-autonomy provinces, Santa Cruz and Tarija, contain much of the nation's vast natural gas reserves, the impoverished nation's most lucrative export. The two other pro-autonomy provinces, Beni and Pando, encompass vast Amazonian regions rich in timber and other natural resources.

The president struck a somewhat conciliatory tone in his postelection comments. He vowed to respect autonomy advocates in the gas-rich lowlands, where many revile him, and said autonomy would be part of the constitutional discussion.

Political compromise, however, may not be an easy task for the pugnacious Morales, who rose from the take-no-prisoners world of the Bolivian coca fields and union politics and specializes in harsh put-downs of his perceived enemies.

Before the election, the president demeaned pro-autonomy leaders in Santa Cruz as out-of-touch "autocrats" and "parasites," while accusing Washington of assassination and destabilization plots.

Even in the midst of his generally conciliatory postelection comments, Morales struck triumphant notes that hinted he had no intention of backing down on his ambitious agenda of shifting power toward the indigenous population and imposing state control of the economy.

"We have the obligation to make a profound transformation, because the people and the indigenous movement voted for a democratic revolution," he said.

Morales has used decrees and tactics his critics see as bullying to achieve objectives, such as the May 1 nationalization of the energy sector. His brusque handling of the nationalization, which included deploying troops to gas installations built in part with investments from Brazil and Spain, went over particularly badly in neighboring Brazil, a principal purchaser of Bolivian gas. Brazilians harshly assailed President Luis Inacio Lula da Silva, whom Morales once described as his "big brother," for allowing tiny Bolivia to bully and humiliate South America's economic giant.

Observers warn that if Morales opts for dictates over debate, the deep regional and ethnic fissures made evident in Sunday's vote could undermine Bolivia's fragile democracy. With its history replete with military coups, Bolivia has maintained shaky democratic rule for almost a quarter of a century, even as popular protests helped chase out presidents in 2003 and 2005.

"We are a country with a shortage of democratic culture, but in these last two decades we have resolved all of our differences within the framework of democracy," said Toranzo, the political analyst. "With luck we will continue to accept those rules."

Andres D'Alessandro in The Times' Buenos Aires Bureau contributed to this report.

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