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Bolivians approve new constitution, exit polls show

Bolivian President Evo Morales is showered with confetti Sunday as he arrives in Villa 14 de Septiembre to vote. Five of nine states in the racially divided country rejected the constitution.

Associated Press

Bolivian President Evo Morales is showered with confetti Sunday as he arrives in Villa 14 de Septiembre to vote. Five of nine states in the racially divided country rejected the constitution.

LA PAZ, Bolivia — Bolivian voters embraced a new constitution Sunday that promises more power for the poor indigenous majority and grants leftist President Evo Morales a shot at remaining in office through 2014.

But the charter's low support in Bolivia's lowland east — which controls much of the nation's wealth and fiercely opposes Morales' plans to empower long-suffering highland Indians — leaves the racially torn country as divided as ever.

Its passage nevertheless marked a historic transition in a nation where the oldest voters can still recall when Indians were forbidden to vote.

"Brothers and sisters, the colonial state ends here," President Evo Morales, 49, told a huge crowd in front of the presidential palace after the results of Sunday's referendum were announced. "Here we begin to reach true equality for all Bolivians."

The central reform of Morales' three-year administration won 59 percent to 41 percent, according to an unofficial quick count by television network ATB, with a three-percentage-point margin of error. A final tally will be announced in 10 days.

Morales, an Aymara Indian and Bolivia's first indigenous president, says the charter will "decolonize" South America's poorest country by recovering indigenous values lost since the Spanish conquest.

Bolivia's Aymara, Quechua, Guarani and dozens of other indigenous groups only won the right to vote in 1952, when a revolution broke up the large haciendas on which they had lived as peons for generations.

"The poorest people are the majority. The people with money are only a tiny few," said voter Eloy Huanca at a polling place in El Alto outside the capital of La Paz. "They ran things before, and now it's our turn."

Opposition leaders object that the constitution does not reflect Bolivia's growing urban population, which mixes both Indian blood and tradition with a new Western identity, and could leave non-Indians out of the picture. They also oppose Morales' vision of greater state control of the economy.

On Sunday, opposition leaders celebrated as well, as five of nine states rejected the constitution.

"In five states we have another vision of the country," said Moises Shiriqui, the cowboy-hatted mayor of the eastern provincial capital of Trinidad. "We're asking government to listen to the regions for the first time, and to govern for all."

Morales has allied himself closely with Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez in what they call "21st century socialism," sharing his anti-American rhetoric.

Elected in 2005 on a promise to nationalize Bolivia's natural gas industry, Morales has increased the state's presence throughout the economy and expanded benefits for the poor.

Bolivians approve new constitution, exit polls show 01/25/09 [Last modified: Monday, January 26, 2009 12:00am]

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