Everyone a winner in Boliva vote ... or are they?

Eduardo Garcia and Simon Gardner, August 11

LA PAZ, Aug 11 (Reuters) - Almost everyone was a winner in Bolivia's recall election with President Evo Morales and his political arch-enemies all celebrating landslide victories, but it may be the worst possible outcome.

The votes on Sunday were a face-off between Morales and a group of right-wing governors who abhor his plans for socialist constitutional and land reforms and are fighting back by demanding autonomy for their provinces and a bigger share of windfall natural gas revenues.

Defeat would have forced Morales to step down. He easily survived with unofficial results showing he won more than 60 percent support, but his main rivals also won their recall votes with healthy majorities, reinforcing their support in the country's richest provinces.

The results will likely deepen Bolivia's political deadlock as both sides feel emboldened and play to their political galleries.

"These victories should taste like a defeat for both sides," independent political analyst George Gray Molina said. "The president will feel stronger and the governors will feel stronger, and I foresee more confrontation."

Underscoring the deep polarization, Morales, whose power base is among Indians in Bolivia's impoverished west, had to cancel a series of campaign rallies in resource-rich and opposition-run eastern and central provinces last week.

Morales was visibly rattled when Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, his ideological ally and benefactor, canceled a pre-vote visit because of violent protests and airport blockades that forced rally cancellations.

Chavez's petrodollars have helped fund infrastructure projects and houses. That has boosted Morales' reputation with the poor, but conservative opponents claim Morales is nothing more than Chavez's puppet and have led the drive for autonomy in four of Bolivia's nine provinces.

TENSIONS

With over 75 percent support according to unofficial results, Ruben Costas, governor of Santa Cruz province in Bolivia's agricultural heartland, took to the stage on Sunday night and chanted "Autonomy, Autonomy!" to the delight of dancing supporters.

"We warn the corrupt and arrogant rulers not to try to impose an illegal and racist constitutional project, because that would be a dead end for them," Costas boomed.

Minutes later, Morales was also grinning widely as he stepped onto a balcony of the presidential palace in La Paz and told a crowd of thousands gathered in the square below that he would press on with his nationalization program and new constitution with renewed vigor.

"What the Bolivian people have expressed with their votes today is the consolidation of change. We're here to move forward with the recovery of our natural resources," he said, after exit polls gave him more than 60 percent of the vote -- well over the 53.7 percent with which he was elected in 2005.

Since becoming the Andean nation's first Indian president, Morales has made strides to tighten the state's grip over the economy, nationalizing energy, mining and telecommunications operations. He is using some of the revenue to fight poverty, which engulfs two-thirds of Bolivia's 10 million population.

"Evo is negotiating on behalf of the most humble," said provincial teacher Samuel Rodas during a visit to the slum city of El Alto, above La Paz. "The governors treat people like cattle. They are thieves."

Unless Morales and the bloc of governors sit down and negotiate, deep racial and political tensions could flare into renewed violence.

"The endorsement (of the governors) will radicalize the tension in the country a great deal more," said Franklin Pareja, professor of political science at the state-run San Andres University in La Paz.

"The indisputable support of the governors and the revalidation of the president's mandate will not help solve anything. It would have been better if there been a winner and a loser." (Editing by Kieran Murray)

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