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Page last updated at 05:14 GMT, Monday, 11 August 2008 06:14 UK

Bolivian poll unites and divides

By Daniel Schweimler
BBC News, La Paz

Women voting in Tiahuanako (10/08/08)
Evo Morales says he wants to give indigenous groups a greater voice

Both sides in the dispute that has split Bolivia have claimed victory in the recall referendum that was designed to heal the country's wounds.

Based on unofficial exit polls, President Evo Morales stood on the balcony of the presidential palace in La Paz and told a crowd of cheering and flag-waving supporters that they had given him the mandate to push ahead with his radical plans to alter the way Bolivia is governed.

He would fight poverty, he said. And he would continue to try to implement a new constitution that would give a greater say to indigenous and poor communities, that he would nationalise more industries and carry out land redistribution programmes.

The electorate was also voting on whether eight of the country's nine regional governors should remain in office and at least five of them claimed victory.

The most notable was one of President Morales's bitterest opponents, the governor of the oil- and gas-rich eastern city of Santa Cruz, Ruben Costas.

He also addressed hundreds of cheering and flag-waving supporters at a victory ceremony, saying he now had the mandate to strengthen the push for greater autonomy from central government.

Heavy taxes

The strength of opposition in the east to President Morales is so strong that he even has difficulty travelling there - twice last week angry demonstrators made it impossible for his plane to land and he had to cancel visits.

I voted to support this president because he can deliver us a more dignified country
Bolivian voter in El Alto

The Santa Cruz governor, Mr Costas, and other regional leaders have been leading a hunger strike in support of their efforts to remove the president from office.

The main plaza in the city is full of tents erected to treat the increasingly weak and hungry demonstrators, and passers-by were quick to offer me their opinions on Mr Morales.

"He should go," said one woman. "He should resign because he's doing a lot of damage to the country.

"He's not a president who governs for everyone, he's just governing for one side. And that's bad, really bad. He should be governing for everyone."

Another called him a dictator.

Large numbers of people in the east, where many are of European descent, say they resent the central government in La Paz taxing them heavily and paying little back in return.

They feel they are subsidising the predominantly poor and indigenous mountainous west of Bolivia.

'The same blood'

Evo Morales came to office in January 2006 offering radical changes.

Bolivia is the poorest country in South America with what wealth it does have in the hands of a few rich families.

Bolivia's President Evo Morales at the presidential palace (10 August)
Mr Morales said Bolivia had voted for the consolidation of change
He is also the country's first indigenous president where more than 60% are Indian. He was one of them, they said. He spoke their language and understood their concerns.

One of Mr Morales's major strongholds is the city of El Alto, a sprawling blanket of concrete blocks high in the Andes mountains above La Paz.

"I voted to support this president because he can deliver us a more dignified country," one man queuing up to vote told me.

"Perhaps my children could live in a more dignified country and not have to live off of handouts. They shouldn't have to go abroad to work but should work here."

A woman standing behind him added: "I'll tell you why I support him - because he's from the same background, has the same blood.

"He's implementing a lot of changes - the kind of things other presidents haven't done. The trouble is, he's got no time, he's been president for a very short time."

'Two voices'

So both sides in this increasingly bitter dispute are claiming victory. But according to political analyst, Carlos Toranzo, the referendum did little to address Bolivia's underlying concerns.

"The big problem," he said, "is inflation, is poverty, is investment; but when the people voted, it did not give them solutions to these problems.

Opponents of Bolivia's President Evo Morales during protests in Tarija, Bolivia (5 August)
Large numbers of people in the east resent central government in La Paz
"I think maybe the vote will amplify the problems between east and west. But I don't think the vote will find solutions to poverty, inflation and inequality."

The split is not simply between east and west. Many in the east support Evo Morales. Some in the west oppose him.

One of his leading supporters in Santa Cruz is Chato Peredo.

"This country has always been divided between rich and poor," he explained.

"But before the only ones who had a say were the rich. However, now that the poor, the majority, are speaking up, it appears that the country is divided because for the first time, the poor can demonstrate. Before there was just one voice - now there are two voices."

If the unofficial results are confirmed, three of the eight regional governors - one a supporter of the president and two opponents - will have to stand down and hold fresh elections. Those votes are likely to be the next flash points.

The Bolivian people have spoken and they have spoken democratically at the ballot box.

The test now is whether the country's fragile democracy can stand the strain it is under and the different sides in the dispute can find room for compromise.


SEE ALSO
Morales 'wins' tense Bolivia poll
11 Aug 08 |  Americas
Divided Bolivia set for referendum
09 Aug 08 |  Americas
Morales calls for Bolivian unity
07 Aug 08 |  Americas
Bolivia protests prevent summit
05 Aug 08 |  Americas
Governors snub Bolivia referendum
24 Jun 08 |  Americas
Morales sets Bolivia recall date
12 May 08 |  Americas
Setback to Bolivian reform plan
08 Mar 08 |  Americas
Battle for Bolivia's heart
08 Sep 07 |  From Our Own Correspondent
Country profile: Bolivia
22 Apr 08 |  Country profiles

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