- The Washington Times - Sunday, August 10, 2008

LA PAZ, Bolivia | Fears mounted Saturday in Bolivia over a referendum that could end the mandates of President Evo Morales or several opposition governors may instead deepen a political crisis dividing the country.

Observers said two conflicting sets of rules on how to interpret the results of Sunday’s recall referendum - one issued by the National Electoral Court and the other by congress - could mire the vote in confusion.

“This is a problem,” Carlos Alvarez, heading up a group of poll observers from South American countries in the Mercosur trade bloc, conceded to La Razon newspaper.

“We hope they find an agreement either before the referendum or immediately afterwards on just one interpretation of the rules,” he said.

The Organization of American States, which has also sent observers, issued a statement saying Bolivia’s 4 million voters needed “security as to how their votes will be counted and how the results will be defined.”

The uncertainty has elevated pre-poll tensions, which had already sparked isolated incidents of violence.

Mr. Morales has found himself unable to travel to many parts of the country that are opposition strongholds. On Tuesday, Argentine President Cristina Kirchner and Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, both allies, had to cancel a visit to see Mr. Morales in southern Bolivia when anti-government protesters stormed the airport.

Mr. Morales called the referendum to reassert his authority over rebellious governors who are refusing to adopt his socialist reforms, which would give more of the nation’s limited wealth to the indigenous majority of which he is part.

The uncertainty over the rules, and Mr. Morales’s refusal to negotiate with the opposition, has frustrated voters.

“Most people think it [the referendum] is a distraction from the problems we have, and I don’t think it’ll change anything really,” said Pamela Gutirrez, 25, a computer specialist in La Paz. She added that she would vote for Mr. Morales anyway.

According to congress, which is relying on the constitution, Mr. Morales or the governors can be ousted if the number of “no” votes exceed the amount of support they received in 2005 elections.

Thus Mr. Morales could be forced out if more than 53.74 percent of voters go against him. The governors can be toppled with just 38 percent to 48 percent of the ballots.

But the National Electoral Court has offered a very different formula: Mr. Morales’ bar remains at 53.74 percent, but the proportion needed to bring down a governor is 50 percent plus one vote.

That could create a scenario in which Mr. Morales insists that a governor has been ousted according to congress, but the governor refuses to go, citing the court’s standard.

“The governors who are recalled with less than 50 percent of the vote will make it known they’re not happy very, very quickly. And I think if Morales is not ratified by a big margin, we could see a deepening of the political crisis,” said French political analyst Herve Do Alto, who has been living in La Paz for three years.

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