Bolivia constitution is set to pass

Posted in Latin America | 29-Jan-09 | Author: Chris Kraul| Source: Los Angeles Times

Crowds gather in the capital, La Paz, to celebrate after early returns showed the new constitution passing. Observers expect President Evo Morales to dissolve Congress and call for early elections.

Reporting from La Paz, Bolivia -- Voters appeared to have handed Bolivian President Evo Morales a resounding victory Sunday, with exit polls showing they had approved a new constitution that will advance indigenous rights, strengthen state control over natural resources and permit him to seek another term.

Morales addressed a cheering crowd in the plaza before the presidential palace here Sunday night to claim victory and declare that "Bolivia has been re-founded" and that "neoliberalism has been defeated."

According to exit polls by two television stations and a political consulting firm, at least 56% of voters approved the 411-article constitution.

The final count of votes is not expected for several days.

Approval of the constitution, which caps a two-year campaign by Morales, will give expanded discretionary powers to the president, such as the ability to dissolve Congress. He will also be eligible to run for a second five-year term late next year. The earlier constitution did not allow consecutive terms.

Observers expect him to dissolve Congress and call for new elections ahead of scheduled December 2009 balloting.

As expected, voters in the western highland states such as La Paz with large indigenous populations overwhelmingly approved the new charter, according to the preliminary results, while voters in the four eastern states that passed autonomy measures last year were resoundingly opposed.

For many voters interviewed Sunday in the city of La Paz, the nation's capital, the most salient features of the new charter are the strengthened rights for Bolivia's three dozen ethnic groups, which make up about a third of Bolivia's 9.2 million population. The word "indigenous" appears 130 times in the new constitution.

According to clauses in the new document, those groups will now be able to eschew the traditional court system and resort to their own "community justice," claim some nationalized lands as their own and receive a greater share of royalties on minerals and energy developed on or beneath those lands.

Interviews with residents of El Alto, a sprawling, mostly indigenous and mixed-race suburb of the capital, reflected high hopes that native communities will now have the stake in national life that many believe has long been denied them. Preliminary counts showed 82% of residents there approved the measure.

"This is a great day because we never counted before and now we will," said law student Jenny Marca as she stood in the compound of Abel Iturralde School with her mother, who was dressed in traditional derby hat, shawl and hooped skirt.

Civil engineer Luciana Vargas, also of El Alto, said the previous constitution had to be changed because it favored the rich "just like all our previous presidents favored them."

By checking boxes on their ballots, voters also were deciding on a cap of either 12,000 or 24,000 acres as the maximum landholdings per owner. Landowners can be stripped of property that is not "socially or economically useful." But existing landowners with more than the maximum would be grandfathered in.

Clothing manufacturer Ricardo Ucharico predicted that many people would move from El Alto to occupy nationalized lands because "the population here is growing and there is no room for them."

Political analyst and professor Ximena Costa said the new constitution is a step forward for Bolivia's indigenous peoples in that it gives them and their rights legal definition.

But the rights, especially those regarding territory, are uncertain and contradictory and could lead to many conflicts among the communities that may try to exert control, Costa said.

The divisions among voters on Morales and the constitution were apparent in central La Paz on Sunday morning. Some opposed the new charter because of the added power it conferred on the president, a socialist who is an ideological ally of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez.

"He wants to convert us into another Venezuela," dental technician Gabriel Paredes said.

"Our children deserve a better future, not a socialism copied after Cuba's or authoritarianism like that of Chavez," retired railway worker Marcial Miranda said.

Special correspondent Oscar Ordonez contributed to this report.