Voting has ended in Bolivia in a referendum to determine whether President Evo Morales should remain in office. If he loses, presidential elections will be held in three months. Exit polls suggest that he has won.
Bolivian President Evo Morales put his own mandate and those of his fiercest political foes on the line Sunday in a referendum aimed at ending a protracted crisis dividing his country.
Mandatory voting in the plebiscite got underway Sunday with Morales expected to survive due to massive support from the indigenous majority, which makes up 60 percent of Bolivia's 10-million strong population.
"My big dream is to have unity among the Bolivian people," the president said as he voted in Villa 14 de Septiembre, a town in the central Chapare state that is a bastion of support.
He was surrounded by hundreds of indigenous coca farmers and accompanied by two of his children.
Morales, a former coca farmer who became Bolivia's first indigenous leader in 2006, called the referendum in a bid to get the upper hand over opposition conservative governors resisting his socialist reforms.
Most of the eight governors who are on the ballot are also expected to hang on, though as many as three in the opposition could be forced out, according to pre-poll surveys.
Four of the opposition governors have formed a coalition against Morales, and are pushing for autonomy from his leftwing government in their eastern lowland states.
That region provides most of Bolivia's wealth through natural gas and farming, and is dominated by an elite of European descent.
The crisis has deeply divided the country along ethnic, political and regional lines. Morales has been prevented from landing his plane in opposition states because of sometimes violent opposition.
Voting took place in relative calm, with only a few incidents reported.
In the northern town of Yucumo, seen as pro-Morales, polling stations did not open because an electoral official had ballots stolen from her home, local media said. The head of the National Electoral Court, Jose Luis Exeni, said new ballots were being sent there by plane.
In Santa Cruz, the regional capital of the state of the same name, a Peruvian was caught trying to vote with false Bolivian identification, an opposition campaigner, Branco Marinkovic, said. An official from the ruling Movement Towards Socialism party was also said to have been assaulted.
Santa Cruz's opposition governor Ruben Costas smiled as he voted.
"I am feeling good, happy, because this is going to let us accelerate even more our process for autonomy," he told reporters.
Another opposition governor, Manfred Reyes of the central state of Cochabamba, has vowed to ignore any result ousting him.
The capital La Paz, expected to overwhelmingly back Morales, was calm under strong sunshine as ballots were cast.
One woman voter, wearing a traditional shawl and derby hat, said the president had her vote. "Certainly, I'm Bolivian, from La Paz, so I had to vote for Evo," she told AFP.
Another similarly dressed voter said she left her ballot blank, but declined to explain why.
A man who, like the women, declined to give his name, said he voted against Morales because of "his style, for the things he's done."
Analysts said the referendum would likely change little, and could even harden the political conflict -- especially as there were differing official interpretations over how many votes were needed to topple the governors.
"Win or lose, Evo seems to have settled in as the revered leader of half the country, and the devil in disguise for the other half. That presents a real problem for governing," said Jim Shultz, the US director of the Democracy Center in Bolivia.
Date created : 2008-08-10