Two Bolivian regions gear up for autonomy vote

Eduardo Garcia, Fri May 30, 2008

LA PAZ, May 30 (Reuters) - The leaders of two Bolivian regions will challenge President Evo Morales on Sunday by holding referendums aimed at garnering support for an autonomy movement fiercely opposed by the leftist leader.

The votes in the eastern regions of Beni and Pando, follow a similar referendum in Bolivia's richest region, Santa Cruz, which voted overwhelmingly in favor of autonomy on May 4.

The referendums reflect a power struggle between Morales and his conservative opponents, who are seeking to regain the political clout they lost when he became the country's first president of indigenous descent in January 2006.

The province of Tarija, which has most of Bolivia's vast natural gas reserves, is expected to hold a similar referendum in late June.

Morales is struggling to tame the vigorous autonomy drive in the four regions, all governed by opposition parties. His critics have also cast the votes as referendums on his policies, particularly a push to rewrite the constitution to hand greater power to Bolivia's poor, Indian majority.

"As a concept (autonomy) is poorly defined here and mostly it's been used as a weapon and a threat, and I think both sides have interpreted it that way," says Kathryn Ledebur, director of the Andean Information Network think tank.

The four regions are voting "yes" or "no" to different autonomy drafts that could hand regional leaders greater control over taxes, policing and natural resources like farmland and natural gas reserves.

Morales has branded the balloting illegal and urged his supporters to abstain from voting.

State Intervention

Like his ally, Venezuelan leader Hugo Chavez, Morales has nationalized the energy industry and increased state intervention in key economic sectors, including mining and telecommunications.

His pro-Indian reforms are popular in western Andean areas, where indigenous people make up a majority of the population. But they have raised hackles in the wealthy east, where most people are of mixed race and do not follow Indian traditions.

Months of tension between Morales and his rivals have slowed the president's plan to break up large land holdings to redistribute them among the poor. Analysts say resistance from landowners and some businessmen to the plan is at the core of the autonomy drive.

Morales, hoping to gain the upper hand in the political conflict, has agreed to face a recall vote on Aug. 10 along with Bolivia's nine regional governors.

Most analysts say Morales should easily survive the vote, but some opposition governors could face a tougher battle.

Ledebur said all the votes could eventually do little to resolve a political stalemate that has gripped Bolivia for months.

"I don't see a genuine desire on any party to give an inch. The risk ... is that the lowland departments will feel more entrenched in their position and the Morales government will feel more deeply offended," she said. (Editing by by Kevin Gray and Chris Wilson)

Republished from Reuters

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