Bolivians Elect Assembly to Revise Constitution
Monday, July 3, 2006
LA PAZ, Bolivia, July 2 -- Bolivians voted Sunday for a national assembly to retool the constitution, a key step in President Evo Morales's plans to cement his reforms and give more power to the Andean nation's Indian majority.
The vote results, based on a partial count of votes at all polling stations done for the PAT television network, gave Morales supporters 132 seats in the 255-person body, far short of the two-thirds majority they needed to dominate the assembly.
In a separate ballot question with potentially far-reaching results, voters in four of Bolivia's nine states overwhelmingly chose greater political and economic autonomy for their states, according to the unofficial results.
Sunday's vote was a crucial test for Morales, an Aymara Indian elected in December on promises to wrest political control of South America's poorest nation from a corrupt political class and more evenly distribute the nation's wealth. He began to nationalize Bolivia's natural gas industry on May 1.
Morales had hoped to use the constituent assembly to enshrine in law the accelerated seizure of unproductive lands from absentee owners, and to strengthen traditional Indian justice systems in a country with a notoriously corrupt legal system.
The constituent assembly begins work Aug. 6 and has up to a year to rewrite the constitution, which must then be endorsed in a nationwide referendum.
Morales had urged a "no" on autonomy, saying it would only benefit "oligarchs." Now he will be forced into accommodation on the issue with political foes led by the Podemos party of former president Jorge Quiroga.
Quiroga sought to make Morales's close relationship with President Hugo Ch?vez of Venezuela the central issue ahead of Sunday's vote. He accused Morales of selling Bolivia out to Ch?vez's plans to consolidate power regionally. Podemos won 64 seats in the constituent assembly on Sunday with a collection of other, smaller opposition parties splitting the rest, according to the PAT results.
The autonomy vote, split along Bolivia's geographical and economic fault lines, is sure to exacerbate longstanding tensions between the wealthier eastern lowlands and the poorer, less fertile Andean highlands that are Morales's support base.
Voters in the eastern state of Santa Cruz, Bolivia's largest and wealthiest and the center of opposition to Morales, approved autonomy by 72 percent, the PAT results showed. State leaders complained that too much of their revenue is taken by the central government to subsidize the poorer highlands.
Morales and his Movement Toward Socialism party, or MAS, may now be forced to negotiate with political forces that on Sunday he characterized as "the discriminators, the exploiters, the marginalizers, the haters toward the peasant movements."