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As Bolivians Vote on New Constitution, Opposition Finds Itself Divided

By Joshua Partlow
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, January 25, 2009

LA PAZ, Bolivia, Jan. 24 -- Just six months ago, the enemies of President Evo Morales seemed brash with their power.

In the arc of lowland eastern regions known as the "half moon," which tend to be richer and whiter than those in the western mountains, leaders openly expressed their disdain for Morales. They considered Bolivia's first indigenous head of state an authoritarian socialist and acolyte of Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez.

In protests and strikes, they mocked the former coca grower as nothing but a narco-president. They held their own referendums and declared themselves autonomous. Some called for a military coup.

Among their ultimate aims was to stop Morales from passing a new national constitution that would enhance the power of the state over the economy, enshrine new rights for indigenous groups and perhaps give him several more years as president. The opposition vowed to stop it.

But as Bolivians go to the polls Sunday to vote on that constitution, Morales opponents are divided and seemingly demoralized, with many acknowledging they have little hope of voting it down. In a country where a majority of people are of indigenous descent and poor, the opposition does not, at the moment, have a national figure or a message to challenge the appeal and charisma of Morales.

"Today, there is not a serious opposition in the country," said Manfred Reyes Villa, the former governor of Cochabamba and a Morales opponent, who was ousted during a nationwide recall referendum in August.

Those free-market advocates who disagreed with Morales's policies -- demanding more regional revenue from oil and gas companies, state payments to poor children and the elderly -- coalesced not in a political party but around regional governors and civic committee leaders in the eastern states. They had momentum in May and June when Santa Cruz, Beni, Pando and Tarija passed autonomy referendums.

But their movement stumbled in August, during a national referendum on whether to recall Morales halfway through his first term. Morales won by a landslide, capturing 67 percent of the vote, exceeding the 53 percent he achieved during his election in December 2005.

The victory not only energized his push for a new constitution, it also inflamed the situation in opposition territory. Anti-government mobs ransacked and burned government offices. The trouble peaked on Sept. 11, when a group of Morales supporters came under attack on a dirt road in the Amazonian region of Pando. About 20 people were killed, though the numbers are in dispute, and a subsequent report from the Union of South American Nations called it a "massacre." Civil war seemed a possibility.

"They were much more aggressive. They didn't have a response to the recall referendum," Antonio Peredo, a senator from Morales's Movement Toward Socialism party, said of the opposition. "The only response that they found was the violence, in hope that the government would respond with violence, and then they could publicize the image of an authoritarian dictatorship capable of massacres."

Morales imprisoned the governor of Pando, Leopoldo Fernández, and accused him of orchestrating the killings. The killings and the arrest, according to analysts and politicians, undercut the opposition's momentum.

"With Pando, the regional opposition just collapsed," said George Gray Molina, a research fellow at Oxford University and former United Nations official in Bolivia. "I think they lost authority and legitimacy even among their own grass roots."

Opposition leaders say it was Morales who became more aggressive, using what he saw as a powerful mandate from the recall referendum to crack down on his enemies.

Either way, the violence proved repellent to many.

"If there is one thing that unites Pacenos and Crucenos," as people here call residents of La Paz and Santa Cruz, "according to our research, it is a desire for reconciliation and unity and a rejection of violence and extremism," said Mark Feierstein, a partner in the Washington-based firm Greenberg Quinlan Rosner Research, which has recently conducted polls in Bolivia.

And Fernández's arrest, considered by Morales critics to be illegal, intimidated other opponents, said Jaime Aparicio, a former Bolivian ambassador to the United States.

"The moment that this governor was put in jail without due process and without legal procedure, the moment they accepted that, they were, first of all, divided, and second, they were totally scared the same thing could have happened to them," he said. "And that is when they lost their impulse and energy."

From this weakened negotiating position, opposition lawmakers agreed on Oct. 21 to a series of amendments to the constitution, to reach compromises on some of the administration's more controversial measures. That paved the way for Sunday's referendum.

The final draft of the 411-article constitution would increase the state's power and allow for presidents to be reelected, which could give Morales a second five-year term.

The new constitution would enshrine a series of rights for Bolivia's 36 Indian "nations," including setting aside seats for minority indigenous groups in the National Congress and requiring that they be consulted before natural resources are extracted in their territory.

"Historically and politically, this is going to be like closing a black page in our past. We are opening a new era, where we can build a new country," said Sabino Mendoza, a union leader for coca farmers and a member of the constituent assembly. "For the first time, the campesino, the indigenous person, will know that they have worked on this constitution . . . they are the owners of these ideas."

The constitution also would limit sprawling landholdings, and the state could confiscate land not deemed productive. Although existing properties would be grandfathered in, voters will decide whether the maximum size of future property should be 12,400 or 24,700 acres.

The opposition to Morales and this constitution are by no means gone, and the clamor of dissenting voices has grown louder in recent weeks. Marches and protests championing the "no" vote have attracted thousands.

The Catholic church has joined the fray over concerns such as the text's failure to declare life as beginning "from conception," which it fears might allow for the legalization of abortion. The proposed draft also does not declare Catholicism the national religion, as the current constitution does.

But polls suggest that the opposition will have trouble mustering votes to stop the constitution. And Morales, who greeted screaming supporters Thursday night from a stage in front of the presidential palace in La Paz, seems nothing if not confident.

"Patriots, we are not visiting the palace, we are here to stay for life," he said. "Sunday's vote is not for the government; it is for the Bolivian people."

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