Divided we rule
A boost for Bolivia's president as he wins a referendum on his rule, but divisions persist
CRIES of “Evo, brother, the people are with you!” resounded on Sunday August 10th in front of Bolivia's presidential palace. The revellers were celebrating victory by the country's socialist president, Evo Morales, in a referendum on whether he should remain in office. He not only survived but appears to have emerged with a stronger mandate, according to unofficial results (official ones are due at the end of the week). These suggest that Mr Morales secured over 60% support, more than the 54% he won in a presidential election in December 2005.
But his chief opponents, the governors of four eastern regions, also appear to have had their mandates confirmed by the recall referendum, with thumping majorities. The referendum has thus confirmed Bolivia's political divide between the impoverished, Amerindian, high plains in the west, which remains strongly loyal to Mr Morales, and the more prosperous, capitalist and gas-rich eastern lowlands, which backs the opposition.
Nevertheless, the apparently categorical margin of Mr Morales's victory may give new momentum to his plans to “refound” South America's second-poorest country (after Guyana). “What Bolivians have expressed with their vote is the consolidation of this process of change”, he said on Sunday, to an audience brandishing chequered Indian flags. Mr Morales is now likely to call—and probably win—a separate referendum on a new constitution that would increase the role of the state in the economy, strengthen the powers of the president, weaken the judiciary and give some indigenous communities greater autonomy. The text of the constitution was hurriedly approved in December by an assembly at which the opposition was not present.
Yet the president will still face stiff opposition. The eastern governors will claim that their victory in their regions in the recall referendum is an endorsement of autonomy referendums they have held in the past three months. They want local control over land reform, taxes and gas and oil revenues. Those votes were unofficial and unrecognised but they helped to bring Mr Morales's “revolution” to a halt.
Bolivia's regional division has deepened since the election in December 2005 of Mr Morales. Of Aymara Indian descent, Mr Morales has brought the natural-gas industry under state control, vastly increasing government revenues but scaring off private investment. Some of his opponents accuse him of being a “puppet” of his ally, Venezuela's leftist president, Hugo Chavez. He has campaigned relentlessly for a transfer of money and power to Bolivians of indigenous descent. They have now responded with a renewed demonstration of loyalty.
The opposition accuses Mr Morales of trying to divide the country along racial lines. “With this ratification, what has been confirmed is the country's polarisation”, says Oscar Ortiz, the opposition president of the Senate. The eastern governors can still make life difficult for Mr Morales.
Though both sides have said they will recognise the result of the referendum, neither side appears ready to reach a compromise, in which the draft constitution might be amended to take into account some of the opposition's concerns.
Violent marches, pickets and confrontations toppled Mr Morales's two predecessors. The run-up to the recall referendum was marked by demonstrations and some violent clashes around the country. Mr Morales has won an important battle, but he is far from uniting Bolivia.