Bolivians vote for national assembly to rewrite country's constitution

Monday, July 3, 2006

President Evo Morales said he wanted Bolivia's constitutional overhaul to serve as an example for Latin America.

LA PAZ, Bolivia -- Bolivians voted Sunday for a national assembly to retool the constitution, a key step in President Evo Morales' plans to cement his leftist reforms and give more power to the Andean nation's Indian majority.

Voters also decided whether to grant more fiscal and political autonomy to Bolivia's nine states -- an issue that has exacerbated long-standing tensions between the country's wealthier eastern lowlands and its poorer highlands.

Initial exit polls showed Morales supporters headed for a majority in the 255-seat assembly, though it was too early to say whether they would secure the two-thirds control required push through their agenda.

Voters in four states approved autonomy, with five states rejecting it, according to the exit polls. The split was right along Bolivia's geographic fault line. Voters in the eastern state of Santa Cruz, Bolivia's wealthiest and largest, approved autonomy by 78 percent of the vote, the exit polls showed.

A key point of contention in the referendum is Morales' close relationship with Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez. The main opposition party has accusing Chavez of orchestrating Morales' campaign to remake the constitution in South America's poorest country.

Morales' party favored

Bolivians elected 255 delegates to the assembly, which will begin work Aug. 6 and take up to a year to rewrite the constitution. Two-thirds of the body must approve the changes, which then must be endorsed in a nationwide referendum.

No polls have been conducted, but Morales' Movement Toward Socialism party, or MAS, was favored to win a majority in assembly.

After voting in Chapare, Morales said he wanted Bolivia's constitutional overhaul to serve as an example for Latin America.

"The discriminators, the exploiters, the marginalizers, the haters toward the peasant movements have to be stopped as well as inequality and injustice," he said. "Once there's a new constitution, we'll implement a gradual and democratic process of peaceful change."

Morales' government has used decrees to advance some of its goals, such as nationalizing natural gas production in May, and wants the constitution to enshrine its accelerated transfer of state-owned land to peasants.

The main opposition party, Podemos, favors switching Bolivia to a parliamentary system, weakening the presidency in a country that has seen 189 coups since its 1825 independence. Podemos would also introduce direct elections for more political offices.

Hundreds of election observers fanned out across the country Sunday and monitors told The Associated Press voting was peaceful. However, the government alleged that some voters in the states of Pando and Beni were being offered food, clothes, cable television and even solar panels to vote "yes" on autonomy and asked election authorities to investigate.

Morales, South America's first true Indian leader and still leader of coca leaf farmers here, has said he would vote "no" on autonomy, claiming it would only benefit the country's "oligarchs."

Eye on keeping office

Santa Cruz, Bolivia's wealthiest and largest state in the country's eastern lowlands, is spearheading the "yes" campaign, complaining that its revenues are being siphoned away to subsidize the poorer highland regions.

Morales won the presidency in December by a historically wide margin and remains hugely popular, though his relations with the United States have chilled due to his forging of closer ties to Venezuela and Cuba.

Critics claim that Morales will use the assembly to increase his power like Venezuela's Chavez, who held a constituent assembly in 1999 that concentrated executive power and hastened his re-election.

Many in MAS also support changes that would allow Morales to run for another five-year term. The law now bans him from running for re-election in 2010.

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