Bolivia: Uncertain Political Future in Wake of Autonomy Votes

(IPS) – The political future in Bolivia is unpredictable following the autonomy referendums in the provinces of Santa Cruz, Beni, Pando and Tarija, whose governors interpret the triumph of the pro-autonomy position as a vote of confidence and a victory over President Evo Morales.

Sunday’s vote in the southern province of Tarija was virtually a repeat of the referendums held earlier this year in the other three provinces, with 80 percent of voters coming out in favour of an autonomy statute adopted by the provincial government, according to the exit polls.

But as in the three earlier referendums, held on May 4 in Santa Cruz in the east and Jun. 1 in Beni and Pando in the north, the abstention rate stood at between 30 and 40 percent.

There were only a few incidents in rural towns, where supporters of Morales set fire to ballot boxes and kept people from voting.

The challenge to the government of Morales, Bolivia’s first indigenous president, mounted by the country’s wealthier northern, eastern and southeastern provinces, which are rich in natural gas and other resources, was further strengthened by the approval of the autonomy statute in Tarija.

The autonomy referendums, which run counter to the Bolivian constitution, have been criticised as an attempt at separatism.

The four rightwing governors — known as prefects in Bolivia — are seeking decentralisation and greater control over the revenues from the natural gas and other resources in their provinces by means of the creation of provincial assemblies and local tax collection mechanisms.

Bolivia’s natural gas reserves, the second-largest in South America after Venezuela’s, bring in 1.2 billion dollars a year in taxes and royalties, and are the country’s main source of foreign exchange.

The country’s biggest oil and gas deposits are in Tarija and Santa Cruz.

The main support base of the leftist Morales and his Movement to Socialism (MAS) are the country’s indigenous majority, based in Bolivia’s impoverished western highlands.

Another factor of uncertainty is the Aug. 10 recall referendum for the president, vice president, and eight of the country’s nine governors that was suggested by the rightwing PODEMOS movement and approved by the legislature. (The governor of Chuquisaca is up for election on Jun. 29, because the MAS governor resigned).

The Morales administration and the rightwing governors have expressed a willingness to engage in talks on the two big issues in dispute: the four autonomy statutes approved in provincial referendums, and the new constitution to be ratified in a national referendum, the draft of which was approved in December by the MAS majority in the constituent assembly in a vote that was boycotted by the opposition.

But on Sunday, Deputy Minister of Justice Wilfredo Chávez reiterated that the autonomy votes were illegal, and the opposition has begun to talk about avoiding the recall referendum and beginning to build the autonomy process, based on the strong support expressed in the provincial referendums.

The distancing of the two sides from the possibility of dialogue comes at a critical moment for the government, which is facing difficulties in guaranteeing domestic fuel supplies and preventing the contraband of fuel to neighbouring countries, where prices are much higher.

Compounding these problems are the rise in food prices and pressure from public transport associations to raise bus ticket prices.

Morales is also facing a strike and roadblocks on routes leading to the province of Potosí, organised by small-scale miners who refuse to pay taxes on their production, despite the current boom in the price of tin.

In spite of the adverse political climate faced by the Morales administration, the popular movements that support the government continue to stand strong behind their demands for empowerment of the country’s indigenous people, who have long suffered discrimination, and the profound democratic and cultural changes promised by the indigenous president.

On Saturday, Morales launched his campaign in search of ratification of support for his government’s achievements, while Vice President Álvaro García Linera came out to defend the administration from accusations of poor economic performance.

García Linera noted, for example, that the current annualised inflation rate of 12 percent is no higher than the rates seen during the rightwing administrations that governed Bolivia from 1986 to 1997.

Morales is confident that he will achieve the 53.7 percent of the votes that he took in December 2005, when he was elected president. Morales, the vice president and the governors will have to take as many or more votes as they won when they were elected, in order to stay in office.

But several of the six opposition governors are worried that they will fail to gain the proportion of votes that they took in December 2005, in the first popular elections for provincial governors (until then, the prefects were presidential appointees).

Governors Rubén Costas of Santa Cruz and Ernesto Suárez of Beni are confident that they will be ratified in their posts in the recall referendum, but Tarija governor Mario Cossío is facing accusations of embezzlement and heavy opposition in rural areas, which endanger his hold on power.

In Pando, rightwing governor Leopoldo Fernández has failed to win support in rural areas and poor neighbourhoods on the outskirts of the provincial capital, Cobija.

Also worried is retired captain Manfred Reyes Villa, who heads the government of the central province of Cochabamba, where coca growers and other followers of Morales are opposed to his support for provincial autonomy.

In the province of La Paz, a MAS stronghold, opposition governor José Luis Paredes stands to lose the recall referendum, according to analysts.