Image: Bolivian protester
Dado Galdieri  /  AP
A supporter of Bolivia's President Evo Morales tries to block a road during a protest against the autonomy referendum in Tomatitas, in Bolivia's southern state of Tarija, on Sunday.
updated 6/22/2008 9:54:49 PM ET 2008-06-23T01:54:49

Natural gas-rich Tarija became the fourth Bolivian state to declare autonomy from the government of leftist President Evo Morales on Sunday when voters backed greater independence in a referendum, according to two private quick counts of votes.

Autonomy backers waved the state's flag and celebrated in Tarija's capital after pollsters released results showing the "yes" vote getting about 80 percent support. Electoral officials said there would be no final results until Wednesday.

"A new Bolivia must be built on a foundation of autonomy," Gov. Mario Cossio told a crowd of supporters Sunday night. "Centralism has left a bad legacy — we are the second-poorest country on the continent. Autonomy is the new path."

The referendum followed similar votes, with similar results, in three other lowland states.

Morales has called the referenda illegal attempts to cripple his government.

Measure appears to win broad support
Tarija's vote was carried out with some delays but without major problems. Supporters of Morales blocked roads to two small towns but failed to disrupt the voting, said Miguel Angel Guzman, president of the state electoral court, which supports the autonomy measure.

Ipsos, Apoyo, Opinion and Mercado said its quick count — a sampling of votes from polling places after balloting ended — showed 82 percent of voters backed autonomy. The poll had a margin of error of 2 percentage points. About 28 percent of voters abstained.

Pollster Unitel reported that 79 percent supported the measure according to its own quick count. It did not give a margin of error.

Tarija, in the border region with Argentina and Paraguay 400 miles south of the capital, La Paz, is home to 85 percent of Bolivia's natural gas reserves — the nation's main export.

Tarija and the fellow energy-rich state of Santa Cruz want more local control over their gas revenues, which Morales' central government needs to support poorer regions in the west. Other eastern states are seeking autonomy to protect their farms and ranches from Morales' proposed land reform.

Autonomy claims untested
It remains unclear how the new autonomy measures would work. The states have yet to test their self-declared freedoms by withholding gas revenues from Morales' government.

A possible preview came this week in Santa Cruz, where national police arrested two men with a rifle and telescopic sight, saying they planned to assassinate the president during his visit to the eastern state. But a local Santa Cruz prosecutor allied with the autonomous state government released the men, saying they were only going hunting.

The president's quest to lift the long-oppressed Indian majority has alienated the mixed-blood population of the eastern flats, fueling old grudges against a government heavily centralized in the western capital.

"Tarija is consolidating its autonomy, which will be the tool to construct well-being for our community and for a great Bolivia," Cossio said.

Some officials protested the large number of voters that had been eliminated from the rolls, though Guzman explained that they had not participated in the last election and therefore were required to reregister to vote on Sunday.

A local television station was attacked with dynamite Saturday, though officials reported only property damage. Police arrested an army lieutenant who prosecutors said works for the central government. But presidential minister Juan Ramon Quintana denied Sunday that the lieutenant belonged to Morales' security team.

Copyright 2008 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.


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