January 27, 2009 2:00 am

Splits remain as Bolivians back new constitution

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Evo Morales, Bolivia's popular leftwing president, has claimed his second big electoral victory in six months with the endorsement of a new constitution that he promised will pave the way for true equality for the country's indigenous majority.

Initial results show 60 per cent of Bolivians voted in favour of the new charter, which puts a cap on the size of landholdings, extends state control over resources such as natural gas, removes Roman Catholicism as the state religion and introduces community justice and the election of judges.

Four of the country's nine provinces voted against the constitution, highlighting the deep divisions that remain in Latin America's second-poorest nation.

But Jim Shultz, director of the Democracy Center, a Cochabamba-based think-tank, said that although strong divisions remained between the eastern lowlands, home to most of the country's big landholders and its natural gas reserves, and the indigenous strongholds of La Paz and the mountains, the referendum conferred a mandate on the president.

"A polarisation that's 50-50 [per cent] is not the same as 60-40," he said. "This referendum showed a clear majority. If someone gets 60 per cent of the vote in the US we'd call that a landslide. The folks on the other side now have to decide if they believe in the rule of law."

Mr Morales' strong showing could also prompt the rise of a new, moderate opposition force in the lead-up to December's presidential elections, he said.

Bolivia's opposition fractured in the past year, with the rise of a strong regional autonomy movement in states such as Santa Cruz, Beni, Pando and Tarija splitting the base for the traditional national opposition party, Podemos. Carlos Mesa, former Bolivian president, has pledged to form a new party to contest the elections.

"The radicalised opposition in Santa Cruz played to regionalism and racism," he said. "Now with presidential elections in December we're going to have a lot of people trying to figure out how to form a national opposition that can go after a piece of Morales' base . . . they are likely to fall somewhere between Podemos and Morales [on the political spectrum]."

The path to Sunday's constitutional referendum was often marked by violence, with racist rhetoric and clashes between pro-Morales supporters and radical elements in eastern states such as Santa Cruz.

Javier Limpias, opposition congressman from Santa Cruz, yesterday predicted more violence, saying the new constitution would not solve anything. "This is almost a half and half, and means we will probably see more violence," he said.

Macario Tola, member of the Constituent Assembly from El Alto, said the government had the right to move forward with its reform agenda.

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