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Morales facing leadership test

Latest update : 2008-08-07

Evo Morales, the embattled Bolivian president, will put his leadership mandate to the test in a referendum this weekend. The vote is an attempt by Morales to bolster his authority over rebellious governors of the resource-rich eastern states.

President Evo Morales and opposition governors will put their mandates on the line Sunday in a referendum pitting Morales' socialist agenda against a strong autonomy drive that threatens widespread unrest and an ideological split in Bolivia.
  
Governors in the lowlying east of Bolivia, where the nation's all-important gas fields lie, have balked at Morales' socialist reforms and in recent months staged their own regional votes demanding autonomy from the leftwing government.
  
Morales's referendum is an attempt to bolster his authority over the rebel states and end the autonomy push, which he has declared illegal.
  
If he wins, as some recent -- though unreliable -- polls suggest he will, he is expected to claim public backing to carry on with his drive to create a South American socialist state modeled on Chavez's Venezuela.
  
If he loses, new presidential elections would have to be held within three to six months.
  
The run-up to the recall vote, to be held on Sunday, has already been dogged by demonstrations, isolated incidents of violence and constitutional controversy.
  
On Tuesday, presidents Hugo Chavez of Venezuela and Cristina Kirchner of Argentina scrapped a visit to see Morales after 200 protesters gathered at the southern Bolivian town where they were to have met to burn tires and throw rocks at police.
  
The same day, police opened fire on striking miners in the center of the country, killing two and wounding more than 30.
  
The miners were opposed to Morales' socialist reforms, which include doing away with their managed pension funds.
  
More sweeping changes are on the way, with Morales aiming to rewrite the constitution to give more of the country's limited wealth to the poor indigenous majority from which he hails.
  
Controversy over the constitutional validity of the referendum, and skewed rules decided last week by the National Electoral Court have the opposition crying foul, with several governors stating they will not recognize a result requiring them to step down.
  
The court ruled that Morales could be ousted only if the number of No ballots exceed the 53.4 percent he won in the December 2005 elections that elevated him from coca farmer and union leader to president.
  
The governors, however, can be removed if 50 percent plus one vote say so, the court said, effectively setting up two rules for the plebiscite.
  
The constitutional court, which would normally decide on the legality of that move, is all but defunct.
  
Four of the five judges have resigned in protest at Morales's strongarm tactics. The lone judge remaining has challenged the validity of the referendum, but she was ignored by congress because a concordant opinion by three judges is required for rulings.
  
On top of that, the residents of Sucre are agitating to have their city's status as Bolivia's capital restored. (La Paz, which technically shares that status with it, has become the de-facto capital and a Morales stronghold.)
  
They have prevented Morales from visiting, prompting him on Wednesday to give his traditional "state of the union"-style address in La Paz instead.
  
"I am not afraid of the people, nor am I afraid of the empire," Morales said in his speech, using a term he and Chavez use to designate the United States, which they see as a capitalist meddler in the region.
  
"But some people don't want to submit to the people, they only want to submit to the empire," he said.
  
The scene is now set for the stalemate between Morales and the governors opposing him to propel Latin America's poorest nation into a new -- and potentially explosive -- phase.
  
Most of the support for Morales, an Aymara Indian, comes from the impoverished indigenous population that makes up 60 percent of Bolivia's nine million people, and which largely lives in the Andes that make up the western part of the country.
  
Those opposed to him are mainly concentrated in the lowlying eastern states of Santa Cruz, Beni, Pando and Tarija, where the population is more mixed with European descendants.
  
The conflict has laid bare ethnic and economic divisions in the country.
  
It has also become an issue of concern for other Latin American countries, notably Argentina and Brazil, which have deals to buy Bolivia's gas, and Venezuela, which is trying to foster Morales's socialist "revolution".
  

Date created : 2008-08-07

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