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Divided Bolivia expected to approve Morales constitution

Posted by seumasach on January 22, 2009



22nd January, 2009

Bolivians are expected to approve a new constitution on Sunday that the first indigenous president of the country Evo Morales hopes will transform the life of millions of his fellow citizens by giving them more power.

The referendum vote comes after three years of confrontation, with peaks of violence and killings, between the popular Morales and conservative opposition leaders who forced him to water downs plans for re-election and radically reform land rights.

Nevertheless Bolivia remains split between the majority of indigenous population, and the Spanish descendents who own the best farmlands and also happen to live in the provinces rich in gas reserves, the country’s main export. In the midst of the confrontation they threatened with autonomy.

If approved, the new constitution will allow Morales to seek a second term in an election late this year and would give indigenous groups greater representation in Congress and more autonomy in their home areas. Besides the indigenous favour greater government intervention in the economy which is openly rejected by the rich provinces.

Morales, an Aymara Indian, took office three years ago and survived a recall vote last August with 67% support. Opinion polls show the charter has 55% support.

Despite its aims, the proposed constitution is still a work in progress, with vague clauses that the judiciary may struggle to interpret and an implementation process that could be messy as politics here often run along regional and ethnic lines.

Congress, where the opposition has an edge in the Senate, amended the draft constitution after critics accused Morales of wanting to grab more power.

But this month, Defense Minister Walker San Miguel angered the opposition by saying that Morales could issue decrees and bypass Congress to implement the charter.

While more battles are likely in Congress, it ratified the new charter in October just as opposition governors lost influence after protests in their resource-rich regions turned violent. 

The strong diplomatic intervention of Mercosur, Unasur and other regional organizations took the steam out of the autonomy thrust, ended violence and helped find common ground for negotiations to continue and de-radicalize the anti private property, pro-business extremes sponsored by Morales supporters. 

Most of the new constitution was drafted in 2007 in a national assembly dominated by Morales’ party, the Movement Toward Socialism, or MAS, and boycotted by the opposition. More radical members of MAS say the president has since made too many concessions in key areas.

The concessions include a pledge by Morales that, if the constitution passes, he could run for re-election in 2009, but not again in 2014. That promise relieved fears of the opposition that he might try to rule for years, following on the example of Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez and his indefinite re-election referendum.

Rich farmers, who feared their farms would be broken up and handed over to the poor, the charter was also revised so that limits on land holdings will only apply to future land sales and not be retroactive.

The new charter would also tighten the state’s hold on natural resources after Morales nationalized the gas sector in 2006.

In scathing newspaper editorials, the opposition says he has turned his back on globalization, soured trade talks with the United States, and moved to return Bolivia to a barter economy with phrases in the charter mentioning communitarian trade.

Hundreds of observers from different world and regional organizations will be monitoring the crucial voting process.

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