Image: Woman holds ballot
Dado Galdieri  /  AP
An Aymara Indian woman holds her ballot before casting it Sunday at a polling station in the coca growing village of Villa 14 de Septiembre in central Bolivia.
updated 1/25/2009 7:05:29 PM ET 2009-01-26T00:05:29

Bolivian voters embraced a new constitution Sunday that promises more power for the long-suffering indigenous majority and grants leftist President Evo Morales a shot at remaining in office through 2014.

The charter passed easily in a country where many can still recall when Indians were forbidden to vote. But its sometimes vague wording and resistance from Bolivia's mestizo and European-descended minority foreshadows more political turmoil in an Andean nation polarized by race and class.

Morales, Bolivia's first Indian president, says the charter will "decolonize" South America's poorest country by recovering indigenous values lost under centuries of oppression dating back to the Spanish conquest.

'Now it's our turn'
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. That's what you have to consider," said Eloy Huanca outside a polling place in El Alto, a sprawling satellite city of La Paz. "They ran things before, and now it's our turn."

But opposition leaders warn 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.

"People will go to vote for the possibility of dreaming for a better country — but a country for all of us," said Ruben Costas, opposition governor of the eastern state of Santa Cruz. "We should all be part of this change."

The proposed constitution was backed by 56.8 percent of voters and opposed by 43.2 percent, with more than 90 percent of precincts reporting, according to a quick count by a private polling company. The result was similar to two exit polls by private TV stations that showed 60 percent of voters backing the charter.

No violence during vote
Sunday's vote went peacefully, a relief for a nation where political tensions have recently turned deadly. In 2007, three college students were killed in anti-government riots, and 13 mostly indigenous Morales supporters died in September when rioters seized government buildings to block a vote on the proposed constitution.

The proposed document would create a new Congress with seats reserved for Bolivia's smaller indigenous groups and eliminates any mention of The Roman Catholic Church, instead recognizing and honoring the Andean earth deity Pachamama.

The charter calls for a general election in December in which Morales could run for a second, consecutive five-year term. The current constitution permits two terms, but not consecutively.

At the heart of the proposed constitution is a provision granting autonomy for 36 indigenous "nations" and several opposition-controlled eastern states. But both are given a vaguely defined "equal rank" that fails to resolve their rival claims over open land in Bolivia's fertile eastern lowlands, whose large agribusiness interests and valuable gas reserves drive much of the country's economy.

Landholdings are limited
With an eye to redistributing territory in the region, the constitution also limits future land holdings to either 12,000 or 24,000 acres (5,000 or 10,000 hectares), depending which voters choose. Current landholders are exempt from the cap — a nod to the east's powerful cattle and soy industries, which fiercely oppose the proposal.

Morales, an Aymara Indian, has allied himself closely with Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez in what they call "21st century socialism."

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.

Reforms are widely popular
Sharing Chavez's anti-U.S. sentiment, he has also booted Bolivia's U.S. ambassador and Drug Enforcement Administration agents after claiming they had conspired against his government last year. Washington has denied the allegations.

Morales' reforms remain widely popular, winning him 67 percent support in an August recall election. But his biggest project nearly failed in 2006, when an assembly convened to rewrite the constitution broke apart along largely racial lines.

In an October deal, Congress approved holding the referendum only after Morales agreed to seek one more term instead of two.

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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