Bolivian Deadlock Remains as President, Foes Are Returned to Office

Dinocio Coronel Aymar considers his vote in Walata Chico. Bolivians were voting whether to keep President Evo Morales and other officials in office.
Dinocio Coronel Aymar considers his vote in Walata Chico. Bolivians were voting whether to keep President Evo Morales and other officials in office. (By Juan Karita -- Associated Press)
[MAP: Bolivia]
By Joshua Partlow
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, August 11, 2008

LA PAZ, Bolivia, Aug. 10 -- Bolivians voted Sunday to keep President Evo Morales in office, with unofficial returns on a recall referendum giving him a victory even larger than the one that put him in office more than two years ago.

But despite drawing more than 60 percent of the vote, according to partial counts from polling stations, Morales appears to have not fundamentally changed the prevailing political deadlock in this Andean nation. The governors in eastern Bolivia, who form the powerful opposition to Morales, also held their seats by wide margins, leading to concerns that the voting results could exacerbate tensions here.

The president, vice president and eight of the nine state governors were subject to Sunday's recall vote. Three governors, including Morales opponents from La Paz and Cochabamba, were defeated. Meanwhile, the governor of Santa Cruz, the relatively wealthy lowlands state that has led the fight for more regional autonomy and to remove Morales, was backed by nearly 70 percent of voters, Bolivian television reported.

Speaking to a cheering crowd from the presidential palace in La Paz, Morales described the result as a "triumph" and a testament to "all the revolutionaries in Latin America and the world."

"What the Bolivian people have expressed with their votes today is the consolidation of the process of change," he said. "We are here to keep advancing in the recovery of our natural resources, the consolidation of nationalization, and the state takeover of companies."

Even before Sunday's vote, the nation's first indigenous president had had a tenuous hold over the resource-rich half of his country. The mayor of Santa Cruz called last week for the military to overthrow Morales. Protesters have blockaded airports to prevent the president from traveling, and other leaders have vowed that they will not recognize Morales as the country's leader unless he accedes to their demands.

"The stalemate continues," said George Gray Molina, a Bolivian economist and political scientist. "It depends now on how the government proceeds. If they push through an aggressive agenda, they will see a lot of resistance and maybe violence. If he's a conciliator and tries to negotiate . . . he'll have a chance of governing with a lot of political support."

Morales, a coca growers union leader of Aymara descent, was elected in December 2005 by 54 percent of the vote. The result was widely seen as historic in a country in which the indigenous majority has lived for centuries under repression and in poverty.

As president, Morales has been a polarizing figure, casting himself as a defender of the poor, and a determined opposition has prevented him from achieving some of his major initiatives, such as passing a new constitution. Analysts said his margin of victory will probably provide the momentum for another push to pass the stalled constitution.

"The conflict has increased between the president and the regions. The president has won, but his opposition in the east won by more than the president," said Jorge Lazarte, a political analyst and former member of the constitutional assembly. Another attempt to pass a new constitution, he said, "is going to divide the country."

The opposition is led by business interests in the eastern regions, which are rich in agricultural products, minerals and gas. They oppose Morales's socialist agenda and maintain that he is trying to consolidate power in the central government at the expense of the states. Four of these states -- Santa Cruz, Beni, Pando and Tarija -- have voted this year for autonomy, though the central government considers those referendums invalid.

On an election day, voting in Bolivia eclipses nearly all other activities. All vehicles, except certain registered cars, were not permitted on the streets. Restaurants refused to serve alcohol during voting hours. Voting is mandatory, and long lines formed at polling stations across La Paz, which revealed in microcosm the divisions at work in the country.

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