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Autonomy Vote May Dampen Morales Agenda

July 4, 2006

LA PAZ, Bolivia (AP) _ The fractious outcome of a vote on autonomy for Bolivia’s states and the government’s apparent failure to win enough backing to rewrite the constitution could dampened the leftist agenda of President Evo Morales.

Voters in Bolivia casts ballots on both issues Sunday. The wealthier eastern half overwhelmingly endorsed autonomy while those in the poorer and heavily indigenous western highlands, Morales power base, vigorously rejected it.

The results make it likely that Morales will face stiffer opposition as he seeks to improve the lot of Bolivia’s Indian majority by more evenly distributing wealth and exerting greater state control over the economy.

An Aymara Indian and coca-growers leader elected in December with a strong populist mandate, Morales campaigned against autonomy, saying it would benefit the traditional elite.

He and his Movement Toward Socialism (MAS) party were able to persuade most voters _ 55 percent nationwide according to unofficial results _ to reject autonomy by portraying it as a catastrophic harbinger of dissolution for South America’s poorest country.

Morales said that he would respect the outcome of the autonomy vote, but that no state would be permitted to gain control of natural resources such as natural gas.

But the endorsement of greater political and fiscal autonomy by voters in Bolivia’s wealthiest states could slow Morales’ political crusade, particularly if those states succeed in keeping a greater portion of their tax revenues at the central government’s expense.

On Sunday, each state voted on whether they wanted more self-government, but how regional autonomy actually works won’t be sorted until the constituent assembly convenes on Aug. 6. Still to be decided is whether autonomy will apply only to those four states that approved it or to all nine _ and exactly what form it will take.

Among ambitious reforms sought by Morales are free health care for all, an overhaul a corruption-ridden judicial system and greater political clout for Indian groups. Revenues from the nationalization of natural gas alone will be hard-pressed to fund the initiatives.

The most important state backing autonomy was Santa Cruz, Bolivia’s richest and a bulwark of opposition to Morales. Autonomy won among voters there with 72 percent approval, according to a sampling of ballots at more than 1,000 polling stations done by a subsidiary of British polling firm MORI International Group.

Voters also approved autonomy in Tarija state, home to Bolivia’s richest natural gas fields. In all, it appeared headed for approval in four of Bolivia’s nine states.

``This lack of clarity of how they’re going to handle the (autonomy) question seems to me very dangerous and could bring out confrontations between Bolivians,″ said Moira Zuazo, a sociologist at the Latin American Institute of Social Investigation in La Paz.

Morales said after Sunday’s vote that he would respect the autonomy results. But he didn’t specify how he would address them with political foes such as the main opposition Podemos party, which backed autonomy while also accusing Morales of selling out Bolivian by allowing President Hugo Chavez of Venezuela too much influence in his government.

Also in Sunday’s voting, Morales’ supporters failed to win enough seats in the 255-member assembly to exert outright control over a revision of Bolivia’s constitution.

However, Morales sounded a positive note on the vote Monday with his party winning a majority in the assembly.

``The people are little by little uniting in this process of change,″ he said.

MAS won 135 positions to 64 seats for Podemos, according to the MORI results, which had a 1 percent margin of error. Any changes in the constitution must be approved by a two-thirds vote.

The assembly will have a year to overhaul the charter. The document is then submitted to a nationwide referendum.

Many political analysts consider it healthy for Bolivian’s historically turbulent democracy that MAS failed to win two-thirds control of the assembly and will thus be forced to seek greater consensus.

``Obviously, this will mean that the reforms they approve for the new constitution are going to have a more moderate character and the government’s party won’t have the hegemony,″ Zuazo said.

Morales didn’t seek consensus when he nationalized Bolivia’s natural gas industry on May 1 and subsequently began distributing untilled land to poor peasants.

Critics accused Morales of intending to push changes through the constituent assembly that would let him run for immediate re-election, just as Chavez did in Venezuela six years ago, or for a second consecutive term in 2010, which current Bolivian law forbids.

Morales has been quiet on the issue, but if he desired such changes they now appear unlikely.

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