(IPS) – The opposition in Bolivia plans to redouble its efforts against President Evo Morales, who won strong backing — 63 percent — in Sunday’s recall referendum, according to exit polls.
After claiming victory late Sunday, Morales offered to reconcile the new constitution, which is pending ratification in a referendum, with the autonomy statutes approved by voters earlier this year in the eastern provinces of Santa Cruz, Beni, Pando and Tarija.
But opposition leader Santa Cruz Governor Rubén Costas, who was also confirmed in office, vociferously rejected that proposal.
While Morales called for unity between the western highlands provinces, where his main support base lies, and the eastern provinces, Costas said the fact that a majority of voters in the east and in Chuquisaca in the south came out against the president reflected their rejection of "the dictatorship and the draft constitution that is leading to confrontation between brothers and sisters."
The leftist Morales, Bolivia’s first indigenous president, who was elected in December 2005 with 53.7 percent of the vote, is pushing through a reform of the constitution that would give more participation to the country’s impoverished indigenous majority, who mainly live in the highlands.
The changes he has been implementing also include the renationalisation of the natural gas industry and agrarian reform. Most of the country’s natural gas reservers and fertile farmland lie in the eastern lowlands, where the elite who have traditionally ruled the country are opposed to distributing a greater share of the wealth among the western provinces.
The supporters of the governing Movement to Socialism (MAS) who packed the central square in La Paz Sunday night broke out in wild cheers when Morales closed his victory speech with the phrase "the fatherland or death!", to which the crowd responded "venceremos!" (we will overcome).
One thousand kilometres to the east, in the central square in the city of Santa Cruz, followers of the rightwing Costas chanted "independence! independence!" while the governor proclaimed a local victory against "evismo chavista".
With that expression, coined by the opposition, the business leaders, landowners and rightwing groups represented by the conservative Santa Cruz civic committee are implying that Morales’ domestic policies are influenced by his chief foreign ally, Venezuela’s controversial leader Hugo Chávez.
In order to remove Morales and Vice President Álvaro García Linera, 53.7 percent of voters — the proportion that originally elected them — had to cast their ballots against them in Sunday’s referendum.
For their part, the eight provincial governors whose positions were also on the line in Sunday’s referendum needed to win at least 50 percent support.
Political analysts pointed out that Morales enjoys high levels of support only in the provinces of La Paz (81 percent), Oruro (81 percent), Potosí (79 percent) and Cochabamba (71 percent).
By contrast, he and the vice president achieved the backing of only 39 percent of voters in Santa Cruz, 43 percent in Beni, 49 percent in Pando, 47 percent in Tarija and 46 percent in Chuquisaca, according to the local television station Unitel.
The preliminary results also indicate that La Paz Governor José Luis Paredes will have to step down, after 57 percent of voters came out against him on Sunday.
Voters thus expressed their disapproval of the unstable conduct of the veteran opposition politician, who has wavered between taking an independent stance and making clear statements in favour of provincial autonomy and influential groups in the pro-autonomy provinces, not to mention the performance of his administration, which the central government labels corrupt.
In Cochabamba, rightwing Governor Manfred Reyes Villa was rejected by 60 percent of voters, including coca growers, who support Morales, their long-time leader.
One Morales ally also lost his post in Sunday’s vote: Oruro Governor Alberto Aguilar, who was rejected by 54 percent of voters.
In Santa Cruz, Costas interpreted the 66 percent support that he won as clear backing for the autonomy process that he is leading along with the governors of Beni, Pando and Tarija.
Costas announced the creation of a provincial security body parallel to the police, a provincial tax collection agency and an office to coordinate the transfer of natural gas revenues to the rest of the provinces, in the place of the Finance Ministry, whose role that is.
Among the most popular opposition governors is Mario Cossío of Tarija who, in the face of predictions that he would lose, won 64 percent support.
The governor of Beni, Ernesto Suárez, meanwhile, took 61 percent of the vote, while Pando Governor Leopoldo Fernández won 56 percent.
Morales ally Mario Virreina, governor of Potosí, was surprised by his own landslide victory: 75 percent.