Bolivia's Tarija province will vote in a referendum for autonomy on Sunday that could split the country into rich and poor and determine the fate of indigenous President Evo Morales, who deems it illegal and separatist. (Report: K. Williams)
Gas-rich Tarija on Sunday becomes the fourth province to vote for an autonomy measure which threatens to split Bolivia into rich and poor halves and which President Evo Morales has called illegal and separatist.
With only 400,000 inhabitants, but holding 85 percent of the country's natural gas that brings in 13 percent of its gross domestic product, Tarija is expected to vote yes for autonomy, joining the ranks of three other provinces Morales has branded "rebels."
For the safety of some 173,000 voters, police and reinforcements have fanned out across the province, which was mostly calm on Saturday, except for some unrest in the eastern towns of Yacuiba and Bermejo where anti-plebiscite sentiments prevail.
A bomb exploded Saturday damaging a television station in Yacuiba.
President Morales, whose aggressive socialist agenda has incited the autonomy move in the rich, eastern lowland regions, cancelled a visit to Tarija last week "for security reasons," officials said, as massive demonstrations were planned against him.
Polling boots in Tarija open at 8:00 am (1200 GMT).
The Morales government has slammed the referendum as a waste of time and money, saying it would not recognize the results.
To counter the movement, Morales in May announced his own plebiscite for August 10, on his government and on provincial governors.
The terms of Morales and Vice President Alvaro Garcia Linera formally end in January 2011, but they could be forced out sooner if more than 53.74 percent of voters -- their margin of support in December 2005 elections -- reject them in the August 10 vote.
Morales on Saturday launched his campaign for the August referendum in Cochabamba.
"Today we launch a campaign for two things: the people will choose (with their vote) between more change or a return to the neoliberal model (of past governments), Morales told hundreds of supporters in a sports arena.
"I already feel ratified," said Morales, who took office in January 2006.
"There's a conspiracy against the government ... it wants to bring the Indians down," said Morales, Bolivia's first indigenous president.
"It may bring the Indians down, but not the Bolivian people, because this revolutionary process is a one-way street, it's irreversible."
The four provinces from the eastern lowland region -- Tarija, Santa Cruz, Beni and Pando -- are resisting land and resource redistribution measures pushed by Morales that would benefit the poorer, mostly indigenous Bolivians of the mountainous western regions.
Political dialogue has collapsed between the socialist central government and the right-wing opposition, led by the Podemos party and the pro-autonomy governors.
Date created : 2008-06-22