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Morales, governors face recall

Few expect the vote in Bolivia will oust the leftist president or unite the politically polarized country.

May 13, 2008|Oscar Ordonez and Patrick J. McDonnell | Special to The Times

LA PAZ, BOLIVIA — In a rare instance of political accord, President Evo Morales and his critics have agreed to support a recall election for Morales and all eight sitting state governors.

The referendum, scheduled for Aug. 10, will mark the third national vote in less than three years in this deeply divided Andean nation of 9 million.

Morales and his opponents, including some of the governors, are gambling that the vote will bloody their respective foes. But few experts view the election as likely to oust the leftist Morales, a vocal U.S. critic, or temper the country's political polarization.

"The referendum won't provide an exit from the crisis," Juan Antonio de Chazal, a political analyst, told the La Paz daily La Razon. "It's more like a taking stock of forces to see who has more legitimacy."

Said Morales: "Personally I don't fear the people. . . . Let the people judge elected officials."

Morales and his opponents both see potential benefits in the balloting, which was approved by Congress last week and Morales on Monday.

The president, almost halfway through his five-year term, is looking for a new majority to reinvigorate his leadership. Conservative critics envision a chance to weaken his mandate.

From Morales' perspective, the recall vote could be a double-plus: He could emerge stronger while several opposition governors, including those in La Paz and Cochabamba provinces, which include the capital and a second major city, might be voted out of office.

Morales, Bolivia's first indigenous president, retains deep support within his base, dispossessed highland Indians, poor urban dwellers and cultivators of the coca leaf, the raw ingredient in cocaine. The president rose to political prominence as a U.S.-bashing point man for the country's cocaleros, or coca growers.

"Evo's doing well," said Pedro Pablo Mamami, a doorman in La Paz, the capital. "All the previous governments were thieves."

In recent days, the president's backers have staged huge pro-government rallies in response to an explicitly anti-Morales autonomy movement that seeks to curb executive power.

The autonomy push is sweeping Bolivia's relatively prosperous lowlands, where Morales is often unpopular. This month, an autonomy measure that would dilute federal sway over taxes, natural resources and other matters was approved in the eastern province of Santa Cruz, the nation's largest and richest state.

The rules of the August referendum set the bar high for knocking Morales out of the presidency. Opponents would have to muster both a greater percentage and larger number of votes than Morales gained in the December 2005 election. He garnered more than 1.5 million votes, almost 54%, a landslide in a nation where presidents seldom win majorities.

That victory provided Morales with broad legitimacy to promote his socialist vision and his close alliance with Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, Washington's chief adversary in South America.

Even if Morales were voted out of office, he would be eligible to run again in a special election to fill his seat. He probably would be a heavy favorite.

"My polling tells me that no one can challenge Evo," said Eduardo Gamarra, a Bolivia expert at Florida International University in Miami. "Evo would win hands down against any of the traditional politicians."

Yet the president's opponents also see the referendum as an opportunity: They are betting Morales' vote totals will decline from the majority that catapulted him to power. By most accounts, Morales has suffered defections among provincial and middle-class voters.

"If Morales doesn't obtain 54% in the recall [election], he's going to be weaker," Gamarra said.

Critics also see another potential upside: The referendum puts off until at least next year an even more contentious vote -- on a Morales-backed draft constitution. The rewrite could give Morales a shot at two new presidential terms and would probably force the breakup of huge cattle ranches and soybean farms in the east.

Under Bolivian law, analysts say, the country can only have one national referendum per year. The recall would postpone a constitutional vote until at least 2009, with Morales a potentially weakened lame duck. The current constitution bars reelection.

With so many ruptures, many fear violent conflict in Bolivia. But the country has also demonstrated a capacity to pull back from the brink.

"I don't think we'll see a civil war," said Waskar Ari, a Bolivian who teaches at the University of Nebraska.

"Bolivians usually find alternative routes of negotiation, of mutual accommodation, instead of turning to violence," Ari said. "I hope that's what will happen this time."

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patrick.mcdonnell@latimes.com

Special correspondent Ordonez reported from La Paz and Times staff writer McDonnell from Buenos Aires.

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