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The largest political rally Bolivia has ever seen looks a lot like a good-natured celebration after a World Cup victory.

The crowd of 500,000 people – more than 5 per cent of the country’s population – fills one of Santa Cruz’s main avenues with green and white, the colours of Bolivia’s fiercely proud second city.

Children run around with painted faces, almost everyone is waving a Santa Cruz flag, a helicopter drops leaflets, and a clutch of local beauty queens adorn the stage, alongside civic leaders dancing awkwardly to a specially written reggaeton anthem.

The atmosphere may be festive, but the residents of Bolivia’s most economically dynamic department have gathered ahead of a referendum on Sunday to send a defiant message to the government of Evo Morales: they want his government to give the region political autonomy.

“We need to protect our resources and keep them here,” says Silvio Rocha, a 37-year-old college teacher who has travelled 75km from the town of Minero to attend the rally. “We’ve had enough of sending 80 per cent of our taxes to La Paz and getting nothing in return.”

Bolivia remains a highly centralised state, but in Santa Cruz at least, the nationwide referendum looks likely to give a massive mandate for devolution. Modest estimates are that 60 per cent of voters will back autonomy, while Yes activists are hoping for up to 90 per cent.

That could put Santa Cruz, a conservative and resource-rich lowland region traditionally dominated by a local business elite, on a collision course with Mr Morales’s leftwing administration, which draws most of its support from the largely indigenous highlands in the west of the country.

Although he originally backed the autonomy process, for the past month Mr Morales has been campaigning for a No in Sunday’s vote, saying the unity of Bolivia is at stake and warning that he will not oversee the transfer of power to local “oligarchs”. This week, the government suggested that in order for the referendum to pass, it must win the majority of votes at the national level, regardless of what happens in pro-autonomy regions such as Santa Cruz.

Tensions between La Paz and Santa Cruz will be complicated by another vote on Sunday for an assembly to rewrite the constitution. While this body has been billed as a way of correcting historical injustices against the indigenous majority, many in Bolivia fear it could end up being used by Mr Morales to accumulate power and remove the bar to presidential re-election.

The result is that the polls promise simultaneously to concentrate and decentralise decision-making in a country marked by deep social divisions.

Although opinion polling has been scant, four of Bolivia’s nine departments – in the eastern lowlands – are thought likely to vote Yes in the referendum. The autonomy movement will need the support of at least one highland region to force Mr Morales’ hand.

But regardless of the outcome, it will be difficult for the government to quash the growing demand for power to be devolved. “Evo hasn’t appreciated that the autonomy movement began as an elite project, but has now spread to all sectors in Santa Cruz and to other regions,” says José Mirtenbaum of the city’s Gabriel René Moreno university.

“This process can no longer be reversed.”

Daniel Castro, of Santa Cruz’s powerful civic committee, says Mr Morales has committed a “strategic error” on the issue. “The government will lose more credibility for having supported the No,” he says.

Germán Antelo, head of the civic committee, reveals the anger under the surface in his speech to the Santa Cruz rally.

In a direct attack on Mr Morales, he compares the president to the Nazi Josef Goebbels and Louis XIV of France. “Enough of totalitarianism, enough of the march towards socialism, enough of centralism!” he says to wild cheers.

Mr Rocha is more direct: “If Evo tries to resist our demand for autonomy, there will be civil war,” he says. “And if that happens, we will be forced to defend ourselves.”

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