By Joshua Partlow
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, January 26, 2009
LA PAZ, Bolivia, Jan. 25 -- After a prolonged debate that has split the country, unofficial results indicate that Bolivians voted to approve a new constitution Sunday, an affirmation of the socialist project begun three years ago by Evo Morales, the nation's first indigenous president.
Government supporters flocked to the plaza outside the presidential palace in the chilly night air in La Paz to celebrate the result, which allows Morales to run for a second consecutive term later this year and will also, many say, bring more rights and benefits to the nation's indigenous majority.
"Here we begin, brothers and sisters, truly, to arrive at equality for all Bolivians," Morales said from the flag-draped palace balcony.
About 56 percent of voters approved the new constitution, with 43 percent against, according to a partial count with about 90 percent of precincts reporting. Exit polls by Bolivian TV stations projected a slightly higher "yes" vote. Still, the margin of victory appeared to be less than the 67 percent Morales captured during a recall referendum last August, suggesting that the country's sometimes violent divisions are far from resolved.
With the expected win, Morales follows his ideological allies in South America, President Hugo Chávez of Venezuela and President Rafael Correa of Ecuador, who have overseen the approval of new constitutions that solidified their powers and, in Chávez's case, extended the presidential term.
In this land-locked Andean country, where most people are descended from pre-colonial natives and scrape by on a few dollars a day, Morales and his followers have cast the constitution as a "re-founding" of Bolivia to redress centuries of injustice. The first paragraph of the preamble sets the tone, lamenting the racism suffered since the "disastrous colonial times."
But Bolivian society during Morales's tenure has grown more divided, often splitting along lines of race and class. Several regions in eastern Bolivia -- an area with more people of European or mixed heritage than the mountainous west -- held their own referendums last year to give themselves more autonomy from Morales's leftist government. Those familiar lines were drawn again Sunday, with four of the country's nine regions, including staunch opponent Santa Cruz, voting against the proposed constitution, according to unofficial results.
Morales's rhetoric favors confrontation over conciliation, and his opponents say the constitution elevates indigenous people at the expense of everyone else.
"We agree that this huge part of Bolivians were not involved at all, historically, in our decision-making process," said Javier Limpias, an opposition congressman from Santa Cruz. "But what the government is doing is demagogically taking advantage of that, because people like me, in this part of the country -- middle-class people, of mixed race -- are not being considered, and we are a huge part of Bolivia that is not being taken into account."
The approval of the constitution precipitates a new round of elections scheduled for December and allows the president to be reelected to a second consecutive five-year term. Morales, elected in December 2005, has said he would serve only one more term, but his critics argue he intends to emulate Chávez in Venezuela, who is holding a referendum next month on whether to eliminate term limits.
The new constitution expands the state's control over the economy, something that Morales has already pursued aggressively in a series of contract renegotiations to extract more government revenue from the foreign companies in the petroleum sector. The nationalizations led to a $1.3 billion increase, representing 10 percent of the country's gross domestic product, in hydrocarbon revenue from 2004 to 2007, according to the Center for Economic and Policy Research in Washington.
The constitution also outlines rights for Bolivia's 36 Indian nations, as they are known, such as allocating seats in the National Congress for minority indigenous groups, and requiring consultation with local residents before taking natural resources from indigenous territories. It also sanctions the system known as communal justice, in which tribal leaders bypass the country's courts to mete out punishments, including beatings and hangings.
A recurring message from the Morales administration is the need to redistribute land and prevent private citizens from owning massive estates that are not deemed socially productive. In the referendum, Bolivian voters set the cap for future land-holdings at 12,400 acres, according to Bolivian TV stations.
Many Bolivians who back Morales and the constitutional project cite immediate and personal reasons rather than ideological ones. Supporters rarely fail to mention the government payments for school-age children and the elderly to justify their preference.
Severo Nina, 34, who sells imported Peruvian housewares, voted for the constitution in downtown La Paz. His father-in-law and his mother, an Aymara woman who grew up in the countryside and never learned to read or write, each receive the $30 monthly payment from the government.
"It's a little extra help. You can buy bread, some little shoes," he said, pointing to his daughter in her stroller. "There are many people who don't have any resources, who don't have paper or notebooks for their children. This helps."
But others see Morales as primarily seeking power -- and willing to make his own rules to get it.
"He wants to serve perpetually, like Chávez in Venezuela, and we don't want that. He has to end his term and no more," David Hinojosa, 69, a retired national police officer, said at a polling station in La Paz. "This constitution is not a solution. We continue divided. The problems are going to continue."
Special correspondent Andres Schipani contributed to this report.