Rival camps in Bolivia both see victory in recall results

Times Staff Writer

Both sides in Bolivia’s bitter political standoff came out of a weekend recall referendum Monday with reason to declare victory. The big loser appeared to be national unity.

President Evo Morales won a renewed mandate for his socialist vision, garnering more than 60% of the vote, according to preliminary results that won’t be official for a week or so.

But his chief antagonists in the rebellious, resource-rich crescent of lowland states known as the “half moon” also savored their triumph. All four opposition governors in the region easily survived the plebiscite in an explicit endorsement of their march toward regional autonomy -- a move that Morales decries as a treasonous splitting of the nation.

The president’s electoral might was heavily concentrated in the four mostly indigenous western and central highland states, long his base, which he swept handily. But a majority of voters in each of Bolivia’s other five states apparently voted for Morales’ expulsion from office, according to one exit poll.


The upshot, according to many analysts, is that Bolivia is as divided as ever -- perhaps more so, as hard-liners in the two antagonistic camps may now have the upper hand.

Any chance that Sunday’s vote would inspire national harmony was fading.

“What is clear is that the extremes have been strengthened,” wrote columnist Ricardo Paz. “We’re in the same position as before the referendum, but more polarized and with more profound differences.”

After the elections, many despaired of the possibility of reconciling two distinct, mutually exclusive views of the nation: Morales’ vision of a socialist, heavily indigenous republic versus the pro-capitalist, Westernized and decentralized Bolivia now on display in the eastern and southern lowlands.


“The national polarization has never been as clearly demarcated as now,” ousted La Paz Gov. Jose Luis Paredes said after the vote. “I worry about the unity of the country.”

The daily La Razon compared the scenario to a hard-fought soccer game that went from a 1-1 score before the vote to a 3-3 score after -- still tied, but with both squads having mounted successful strikes and gearing for new attacks.

“What will these actors use their victories for?” La Razon asked in an editorial.

“That is the question that will define the immediate future.”


Eight governors faced recall Sunday. In addition to the four victorious lowland governors, one pro-Morales and two opposition governors were ousted, and a governor who supports the president was victorious.

In his victory speech here Sunday, Morales eschewed his usual hard-line rhetoric and assumed a conciliatory tone, even congratulating the opposition governors who survived the recall vote. He referred repeatedly to the “unity” of the Bolivian nation.

On Monday, however, the president’s aides were already talking about reviving Morales’ most incendiary blueprint: a constitutional overhaul that is anathema to the opposition. The president’s new Magna Carta would break up large land holdings in the east, throttle demands for regional autonomy and allow Morales to run for reelection, currently barred.

“It is time to deepen, in a democratic way, the transformation of the nation,” declared Cesar Navarro, a leader of Morales’ Movement Toward Socialism party.


Leaders from the opposition bloc were also preparing to accelerate their disputed aims.

Lowland lawmakers proclaimed their intention to proceed this week with a series of autonomy measures that would give the provinces greater control over policing, taxes, natural resources and local government. The four states of the half-moon region are planning to set up parallel legislatures and, in some cases, taxing structures.

Ruben Costas, the governor of the eastern city of Santa Cruz, who racked up a 70% majority, according to one Sunday exit poll, denounced the government’s planned constitution.

Autonomy was proceeding full speed ahead, said Costas, the most visible of the rebellious governors.


“Liberty has defeated totalitarianism!” Costas told a cheering crowd in Santa Cruz, center of the autonomy movement.

Morales, the governor said, was no longer welcome there.

With such a fractious and potentially explosive political atmosphere, urgent new calls for dialogue immediately emerged from Bolivia and abroad.

“Bolivians are calling on their political class to arrive at an accord,” Eduardo Stein, a former Guatemalan vice president who headed the electoral observer team here for the Organization of American States, told reporters. “That is the most eloquent expression of the referendum.”