THE jubilant crowds, chanting “Evo, brother, the people are with you”, that gathered in front of Bolivia’s presidential palace on August 10th appeared to sense that their country’s socialist president had notched up an important victory in a recall referendum that might have seen him chucked out of office after just 30 months. And so it proved: with 96% of the ballots counted, Evo Morales and his vice-president, Alvaro García Linera, had won the backing of 68% of the voters, substantially more than the 54% they gained in the presidential election of December 2005. A high turnout (of 84%) meant that, all in all, the referendum amounted to a resounding endorsement of Mr Morales, an ally of Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez, and his plans to “refound” Bolivia.
For the past year or so Bolivia, a poor country with South America’s second-biggest gas reserves, has been deadlocked by a power struggle between Mr Morales and the elected governors of the country’s eastern regions. Mr Morales, a former coca-workers leader of Aymara Indian descent, wants a new constitution that would strengthen presidential powers, embed a state-led socialist economy and give more power to the traditional communal leaders of Bolivia’s Amerindians. He has much support in the poorer, western part of the country, where he won over 80% of the vote. He is fiercely opposed by the governors of the more prosperous eastern lowlands, whose soya farms and natural-gas fields provide much of the country’s wealth. They see Mr Morales as bent on exploiting racial divisions to impose authoritarian socialism on the country, and as driving away foreign investment.
In the referendum voters were asked to cast judgment, too, on their local prefects, as the elected departmental governors are called. Two of Mr Morales’s opponents, in La Paz and Cochabamba, were ousted. (They will be replaced with presidential appointees.) But the four eastern governors—of Santa Cruz, Bolivia’s business capital; Tarija, the site of the main gasfields; and sparsely populated Beni and Pando—also secured strong new mandates, winning a higher share of the vote than when they were originally elected. Rubén Costas, the governor of Santa Cruz, almost matched the president, winning 64% of the vote there. In unofficial referendums in recent months, residents of these four departments have strongly backed regional autonomy. This opposition front now has the support of the newly elected governor of a fifth department, Chuquisaca.
So the referendum did not give Mr Morales what he most hoped for: a weakening of the eastern block. Nevertheless, he has come close to breaking Bolivia’s deadlock. His victory owes much to his decision to tighten state control over oil and gas, which has bumped up government revenues, allowing him to launch new anti-poverty programmes. Most Bolivians are of at least partly Indian descent; many of them identify with Mr Morales as one of their own. In the run-up to the referendum, the president lambasted his opponents as “racists” and “fascists”.
But support for the president also owes much to the weakness of traditional political parties, which are widely seen as corrupt and self-serving. “Bolivians are very pragmatic, there is no alternative national leader, they only had a choice between Evo or a vacuum of leadership,” says Javier Gómez of CEDLA, an NGO.
His victory opens the way for Mr Morales to secure approval of the new constitution, in a separate referendum which might be held early next year. But this week’s vote also laid bare the depth of Bolivia’s regional divide. In the days before it, demonstrators occupied airports to prevent Mr Morales visiting opposition-run cities. Miners, once loyal to him, clashed with police in protests over pensions. These groups are unlikely to remain quiet.
This week Mr Morales called for talks with the opposition. “The people’s participation in the recall vote requires us to get together,” he said. Mr García Linera, the government’s chief negotiator, suggested that the new constitutional draft be amended to include regional autonomy and elected local assemblies.
On August 13th, some of the opposition governors held a preliminary meeting with the president. Compromise will not be easy. The trickiest issue concerns the share-out of gas revenues. Traditionally, a large chunk went to the regions with the gasfields, but Mr Morales has diverted some of this money to pay for his social programmes. In Santa Cruz, Mr Costas this week began a hunger strike to demand its return. If formal talks do get under way, Mr Morales will now be able to bargain from a position of much greater strength.
6 months ago