Bolivia: Morales Bets All or Nothing in Recall Referendum

(IPS) If both Bolivian President Evo Morales and his vice president are voted out of office in a recall referendum that is to be held, they would be replaced — according to the constitution, and until new elections are held — by conservative businessman and Senator Óscar Ortiz from the eastern province of Santa Cruz.

Morales agreed late Thursday to the referendum, in which voters will have a chance to remove him, Vice President Álvaro García Linera, and the country’s nine provincial governors from office.

It was rightwing sectors in Santa Cruz, Bolivia’s wealthiest province, who held an autonomy referendum last Sunday that won the support of 85 percent of voters.

Analysts say the economic and political elites in Santa Cruz, which is rich in natural gas, farmland, iron ore, water and forestland, want autonomy in order to gain greater local control over the administration of natural resources and the taxies levied on them.

The pro-autonomy movement in Santa Cruz argues that the overwhelming support for last Sunday’s referendum — supporters of the leftwing Morales administration boycotted the vote, which the government regards as illegal — shows that support for the country’s first-ever indigenous president is starting to wane.

For that reason, on Thursday, just four days after the referendum, the opposition-controlled Senate dusted off the draft law for a recall referendum, which had already made it through the lower house of Congress.

Morales, looking serene, said late Thursday in a televised address that in his years as leader of the country’s coca farmers, he had always said "yes to the polls and no to arms."

"I want to reiterate our democratic position of submission to the will of the people, and to call on them to judge who is capable of governing," he added.

"Differences of opinion among officials should be resolved within the framework of the laws and the constitution, and not through referendums that do not respect the country’s institutions and laws," he added, referring to the autonomy vote in Santa Cruz, which was not approved by the National Electoral Council and which contravened the constitution.

The only precedent in Latin America for a presidential recall referendum was the one held in 2004 in Venezuela, when Hugo Chávez won the support of 59 percent of voters. The Venezuelan constitution rewritten under Chávez allows voters to hold signature drives to request recall referendums for elected officials.

According to the law approved by the Bolivian Senate Thursday, the recall referendum must be held within 90 days after Morales signs the measure. To stay in office, Morales, Linera and the governors will all have to win as many or more votes as they garnered when they were elected in 2005. In the president’s case, that means 53.7 percent of the vote.

If any of the officials are voted out of office, elections must be immediately called to replace them.

A defeat for Morales would give rise to an unexpected transition of power from the leftist Movement to Socialism (MAS) party, identified with the country’s indigenous people and social movements, to conservative, free-market sectors that are in favour of foreign investment and foreign oil companies, as were the governments that governed Bolivia prior to the current administration.

In June, meanwhile, autonomy referendums will be held in the provinces of Beni, Pando and Tarija, which along with Santa Cruz make up Bolivia’s relatively rich eastern lowlands region that accounts for most of the country’s natural gas production, industry, agribusiness and gross domestic product.

In addition, the population of eastern Bolivia tends to be lighter-skinned than the people in the western highlands, home to the country’s impoverished indigenous majority.

On Thursday, the rightwing opposition party Poder Democrático y Social (PODEMOS), led by former president Jorge Quiroga (2001-2002) once again took up the draft law for the recall referendum, which was originally submitted by Morales himself on Dec. 5, when his popularity ratings stood at over 70 percent, compared to 55 percent today, according to private polling firms.

At that time, facing sometimes violent protests by the opposition, triggered by approval of the draft constitution being drawn up by a constituent assembly in which the MAS delegates hold a majority of seats, Morales challenged his opponents, especially governors Rubén Costas of Santa Cruz, Ernesto Suárez of Beni, Mario Cossío of Tarija, and Leopoldo Fernández of Pando, to a recall referendum.

The rightwing opposition and business community in Bolivia, South America’s poorest country, are unhappy with the measures taken by the Morales administration, which have included a literacy drive, a programme to provide healthcare to the poor with support from Cuba and Venezuela, and the renegotiation of natural gas contracts with foreign oil companies, which pushed the state’s annual revenues up from 180 million to two billion dollars.

Morales has also been criticised by the opposition, sometimes with racist epithets, because of his focus on improving the lot of indigenous people, who have historically suffered discrimination and racism in Bolivia.