- Bolivia - constitution - Evo Morales - oil - referendum
AFP - Voters in Bolivia went to the polls Sunday to decide on sweeping changes to the country's constitution in a referendum that pits the indigenous majority backing President Evo Morales against the economic elite of European descent.
Polls opened on schedule throughout the country at 8:00 am (1200 GMT). Four million citizens were expected to turn out to cast their ballots on the wealth redistribution measures.
Morales is expected to win the new constitution after enjoying a 67-approval vote in an August 2008 recall plebiscite and thanks to his near-total support from the country's six million Amerindians.
The main thrust of the revision is to give greater political power and revenues from the vital natural gas industry to the indigenous majority, who are the poorest segment in South America's poorest nation.
It proposes limiting land holdings to 5,000 hectares (12,400 acres) or 10,000 hectares, effectively stripping several eastern property barons of their main source of agricultural wealth.
Thirty-six indigenous towns and groups would win the right to territory, language and "community" justice under the new basic law.
It would also scrap the single-term limit for the president, allowing Morales to stand for re-election. He has proposed early legislative and presidential polls in December if the new referendum passes.
Morales, 49, voted in the village of Villa 14 de Septiembre, surrounded by coca plantations and said Bolivians could resolve their differences in a "Democratic manner" and "not with violence."
He declared that "for the first time, a constitution is being submitted to all Bolivians."
Although Morales, is widely popular, his rise has highlighted deep geographic, racial and class divisions in the country that are not expected to ease with the vote.
If anything, they may only intensify as the scene would be set for early elections in December.
Already, the country flirted with unrest bordering on civil war in September, during which 20 indigenous government supporters were killed in a northern state.
The roots of the conflict have been growing ever since Morales in 2005 became the country's first indigenous president and set about upending an order inherited from Spanish colonial times and subsequent military regimes.
The opposition, led by state governors in the country's more prosperous east, fear that Morales' march towards a socialist state is taking their nation into the orbit of Venezuela's fervently anti-US president, Hugo Chavez, and further away from economic efficiency.
Morales's nationalization of the telecommunications and gas sectors has scared off foreign investors, worsening state finances that are now also succumbing to the woes brought on by the global economic crisis.
The opposition is backed by Catholic and Evangelical churches, which fear that the new constitution's declaration that the country is "independent" from religion could pave the way for abortion rights and gay marriage.