- The Washington Times - Sunday, July 2, 2006

LA PAZ, Bolivia — President Evo Morales’ ambitious plans to empower Bolivia’s indigenous majority and boost state control over the economy suffered a setback yesterday when his party failed to win control of an assembly that will rewrite the constitution, unofficial preliminary results showed.

The vote results, based on a partial count of actual votes at 100 percent of polling stations conducted for the PAT television network, gave Morales supporters 132 seats in the 255-member body, far short of the two-thirds majority they needed to push through their leftist agenda.

In a separate ballot question, voters in four of Bolivia’s nine states overwhelmingly chose greater political and economic autonomy for their states, the unofficial results showed.

The vote was a crucial test for Mr. Morales, who was elected in December on promises to wrest political control of South America’s poorest nation from a corrupt political class and more evenly distribute the nation’s wealth. He began by nationalizing the natural-gas industry on May 1.

Mr. Morales had hoped to use the constituent assembly to enshrine in law the accelerated seizure of unproductive lands from absentee owners, and to strengthen traditional Indian justice systems in a country with a notoriously corrupt legal system.

He is now apt to have to compromise when the constituent assembly begins work Aug. 6. The body has up to a year to rewrite the constitution, which then must be endorsed in a nationwide referendum.

Mr. Morales had urged a “no” on autonomy, saying it would benefit only “oligarchs.” Now he will be forced into accommodation on the issue with political foes led by the Podemos party.

The opposition made Mr. Morales’ close relationship with President Hugo Chavez of Venezuela the central issue ahead of the vote, accusing Mr. Chavez of orchestrating Mr. Morales’ campaign to remake the constitution.

Podemos won 64 seats in the constituent assembly with a collection of other, smaller opposition parties splitting the rest, the PAT results showed.

The first official results were not expected until today.

The autonomy result, split right along Bolivia’s geo-economic fault line, is sure to exacerbate long-standing tensions between the wealthier eastern lowlands and the poorer, less fertile Andean highlands that are Mr. Morales’ support base.

Voters in the eastern state of Santa Cruz, Bolivia’s largest and wealthiest and the center of opposition to Mr. Morales, approved autonomy by 72 percent, the PAT results showed. That state’s leaders complain that too much of their revenues are siphoned off by the central government to subsidize the poorer highlands.

Mr. Morales remains president of Bolivia’s coca-grower’s union. His Movement Toward Socialism party, or MAS, is a broad caldron of social and union activists, landless peasants, coca growers and middle-class intellectuals.

They are people more accustomed to rabble rousing than governing and are now apt to be forced into uncharacteristic compromise. That could be difficult for Mr. Morales, who told reporters as he voted yesterday that he intended through the constitutional rewrite to stop “the discriminators, the exploiters, the marginalizers, the haters toward the peasant movements.”

Critics said Mr. Morales would seek to use the assembly to increase his power as did Venezuela’s Mr. Chavez, who held a constituent assembly in 1999 that concentrated executive power and hastened his re-election.

Many in MAS also support changes that would allow Mr. Morales to run for another five-year term. The law now bans him from running for re-election in 2010.

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