Two more Bolivian provinces favour more autonomy (Roundup)
Jun 2, 2008, 3:17 GMT
La Paz - Two referendums considered illegal by Bolivian President Evo Morales delivered very strong majorities Sunday in favour of more independence for the provinces of Beni and Pando, according to unofficial predictions of results.
According to Captura Consulting for the television network PAT, the proposal for more autonomy was favoured by 81 per cent of the voters in Beni and 82 per cent in Pando. According to Ipsos Apoyo for the network ATB, the proposal got some 80 per cent of the votes in Beni and close to 82 per cent in Pando.
Turnout was thought to be a key measure of opposition to the referendum on autonomy and of support for left-wing populist Morales.
In Pando, 46.5 per cent of the registered voters - 44.3 per cent in urban areas, and 49.7 per cent in rural areas - did not cast their ballots, according to an estimate by Ipsos Apoyo. In Beni, 34.5 per cent of those entitled to vote did not do so.
A turnout of at least 50 per cent was required by referendum rules for the vote result to be valid, although it is not legally binding anyway.
Interior Minister Alfredo Rada stressed the low turnout in Pando.
'Pyrrhic victories (in Beni, Pando and Santa Cruz) have hurt the pro-autonomy cause that has legitimate support in several of the country's provinces, in its attempt to impose anti-constitutional statutes at any cost,' Rada said in a press conference.
Beni Governor Ernesto Suarez, who campaigned for the proposal that lies at the centre of the power struggle between the central government and the Andean country's wealthier provinces, said he was surprised by the magnitude of the win.
'We are surprised by the results. We knew we were going to win, but these figures come as a surprise to me. But I want to wait for the official results though,' Suarez told PAT.
'Autonomy is not division,' he stressed before supporters. 'Autonomy is unity in socio-cultural diversity.'
The main squares in Trinidad and Cobija - the capitals of Beni and Pando respectively - were full of people who celebrated the reported triumph of the pro-autonomy position.
There was also celebration in Santa Cruz, which already held a similar referendum on May 4 and saw autonomy favoured by 85 per cent of the voters.
The province of Tarija is set to hold a similar vote on June 22, to become the fourth among Bolivia's nine provinces to cast ballots on autonomy against the president's will.
Both Beni and Pando are relatively small provinces. Some 163,000 voters in Beni were registered to cast their ballots in the referendum, while the figure was as low as 29,000 in Pando.
Bolivian media showed footage of burning ballot boxes in both provinces, and the mayor of the village of Yucumo, Beni, was beaten up during the referendum in vote-related clashes with pro-Morales peasants, electoral authorities confirmed.
However, initial reports of the death of a Morales supporter in a shootout in the outskirts of Trinidad were denied by Beni police.
On Sunday morning, Morales played football with some of his party's legislators on military facilities in the city of Oruro. He also visited miners in San Jose and Huanuni and was set to return to the country's administrative capital, La Paz, late Sunday.
Following the referendum in Santa Cruz last month, the Bolivian opposition surprised the government by passing a proposal for a national recall referendum on the president's mandate.
Morales himself had filed the proposal months earlier, and he went on to set an August 10 date for the vote which he could reportedly win, in a very polarized country.
Morales was elected in late 2005 to become the first indigenous president in Bolivia's history, and set out with the declared aim of improving the lot of the country's empoverished indigenous majority.
His personal form of socialism has met with the bitter opposition of those who stand to lose with a different distribution of wealth to favour the indigenous population based mainly in the country's western highlands.