Early results: Bolivians back Morales in recall

Frank Bajak

LA PAZ, Bolivia (AP) — Voters strongly reaffirmed their faith in President Evo Morales on Sunday in a recall referendum that the Bolivian leader devised to try to break a political stalemate in the bitterly divided Andean nation, partial unofficial results showed.

Also subject to recall were eight of the country's nine governors, three of whom were ousted, according to a quick count by the Ipsos-Apoyo firm. They included two opponents of Bolivia's first indigenous president.

Nearly 61 percent of voters ratified the mandate of Morales and his vice president, Alvaro Garcia, according to the quick count of votes from 800 of the country's 22,700 polling stations done for the ATB television network. The two were elected in December 2005 with 53.7 percent of the vote.

The referendum was a bold gamble by Morales, a former coca growers' leader, to try to revive his stalled crusade to remedy age-old inequities in South America's poorest country.

His leftist agenda has met with bitter opposition in the unabashedly capitalistic eastern half of the country, where protesters last week blockaded airports to keep Morales from touching down for campaign visits.

All four governors there easily survived Sunday's plebiscite, as expected. But the initial results indicate Morales did score gains with the defeat of opposition governors in the highland province of La Paz and in Cochabamba, seat of his coca-growers movement. The recently elected governor of central Chuquisaca province was exempt from the referendum.

Under the law that set the referendum's rules, politicians whose "no" votes exceed the percentage by which they were elected are ousted. It also lets Morales name temporary replacements pending provincial elections.

It remained unclear, however, whether everyone would honor Sunday's results — and not just because their visions of Bolivia diverge so radically. A separate ruling by the National Electoral Court stipulates that the "no" vote must top 50 percent to oust the governors.

More than 100 international observers, mostly from the Organization of American States, were monitoring the vote, which went surprisingly smoothly after one early exception: Before dawn someone stole all the ballots in the small pro-Morales town of Yucumo in Beni state. Replacement ballots were later flown in.

Victor Hugo Cardenas — an Aymara native like Morales who was vice president from 1993-97 — predicted Sunday's vote would only breed chaos, making Bolivia "even more difficult to govern."

"I don't see hope or solutions," said Mayra Quinteros, a 28-year-old engineer who lives in wealthy south La Paz and voted to remove Morales.

But on the wind-swept shores of Lake Titicaca, from where Cardenas hails, other Aymaras were steadfast in their support of the president.

"For more than 500 years we've lived in slavery," said Rolando Choque, a 25-year-old elementary school teacher voting in Achacachi. "Change doesn't come overnight. It's a long road."

The battle for Bolivia hinges on land ownership and natural gas income. Four eastern lowland provinces — Beni, Pando, Santa Cruz and Tarija — have resisted Morales' insistence that the central government control energy profits and decide how to distribute them. The four declared themselves autonomous this year in largely symbolic votes.

While vowing not to expropriate private property, Morales has made an exception for fallow land in the east that he wants impoverished Indians to farm. The plan has made little headway, but still infuriated wealthy landowners.

Natural gas and precious metals revenues have boomed since Morales nationalized the gas fields in 2006 and renegotiated extraction contracts. Bolivia now keeps about 85 percent of these profits, and combined with rising global energy and mineral prices, exports have nearly doubled since 2005 to US$4.7 billion last year.

Populist measures that have endeared Morales to the poor indigenous majority have included handouts to schoolchildren and the elderly. He also has proposed a nationwide pension plan that would extend protection broadly to include workers in the informal economy and stay-at-home mothers.

The opposition, meanwhile, lacks a unifying national leader.

The biggest and richest of the four eastern lowland provinces where it is centered is soy-producing Santa Cruz, where resentment of Morales is virulent. Last week Percy Fernandez, the mayor of Santa Cruz's eponymous capital, called on the military to overthrow the "useless government."

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