LA PAZ, BOLIVIA — Bolivian legislators on Tuesday agreed to schedule a national referendum on their country's controversial draft constitution, a major victory for leftist President Evo Morales in this deeply divided nation.
"There is no going back from this process of change," said a jubilant, teary Morales, addressing thousands of supporters gathered in the Plaza Murillo in downtown La Paz.
The new constitution provides autonomy for indigenous groups and clears the way for more socialist measures by a president who has already moved to nationalize the nation's energy and telecommunications sectors.
Morales, however, reportedly agreed to modify several of the constitution's more incendiary sections, including those governing land reform and the authority of indigenous courts, which would augment the government judiciary.
Morales, who took office in January 2006, also compromised on term limits. He agreed that he would be allowed to seek reelection to one five-year term; an earlier draft would have allowed him to run for two additional consecutive terms.
Most analysts expect the constitution to be approved in a national vote scheduled for Jan. 25. Morales would then probably stand for reelection the following December.
Ethnic, geographic and class divisions have split this nation of 9 million since Morales won election as an outspoken advocate for the disenfranchised in South America's poorest nation.
Morales has labeled his opponents "oligarchs" and "fascist" allies of Washington, which he has accused of plotting to oust him. Last month, he expelled the U.S. ambassador for allegedly meddling in Bolivian affairs, a charge the Bush administration denies.
"The people will always be in favor of defeating the empire and neoliberalism," Morales told the cheering crowd, referring to the United States and its conservative economic strategies.
Bolivia's first indigenous president, Morales personally led a portion of a 100-mile-plus march on La Paz, the administrative capital, pressuring Congress to pass the long-stymied constitutional package. Backing him on the route was an energized column estimated at 100,000 supporters, including peasants, helmeted miners, union activists and growers of the coca leaf, the raw ingredient in cocaine.
"Evo is our blood, and we will defend him to the death if necessary," declared Angel Condori, 58, a farmer who participated in the march, called one of the largest on La Paz.
Lawmakers approved holding the referendum after a reported 17 hours of debate.
The opposition objected to much of the draft constitution as a power grab designed to consolidate what they call Morales' autocratic rule.
But Morales, speaking in the third person, disagreed in an interview with the Spanish news agency EFE. "Evo is not ambitious," he declared.
Still, critics in lowland states seeking greater autonomy from La Paz, in the western highlands, assailed the draft.
"The only thing this will lead us to is confrontation and a lack of democracy," Carlos Dabdoub, an autonomy advocate in the opposition-controlled state of Santa Cruz, told La Razon newspaper.
A raucous constitutional convention convoked by Morales was divided before the draft document was finally approved in December amid an opposition boycott.
Morales is a protege of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, whose constitutional revisions were narrowly defeated in a referendum last year. Another ideological ally, Ecuador's Rafael Correa, pushed for a new constitution that was approved last month. In all three cases, the leftist presidents rejected criticism that they sought greater power through the constitutional changes.
Oscar Ordonez, reporting from La paz, bolivia
Patrick J. McDonnell, reporting from buenos aires