- The Washington Times - Monday, August 11, 2008

SANTA CRUZ, Bolivia | Bolivians voted Sunday on whether to revoke the mandate of leftist President Evo Morales, whose efforts to remake Bolivia into a socialist state aligned with Venezuela have caused deep divisions in the country.

Widespread pre-election violence, charges of electoral fraud and uncertainty about voting rules, marked the closing stages of the campaign. Scuffles broke out between supporters of Mr. Morales and anti-government groups at several polling stations Sunday morning.

The recall election also targets provincial governors, who have become the main opponents of Mr. Morales efforts to nationalize parts of Bolivia’s economy in an effort to redistribute wealth.

Several governors have charged that the referendum has been fixed against them through government manipulations of the electoral system.

Gov. Luis Paredes of La Paz also reported an assassination attempt against him as voting got under way.

“We will win with 59 percent of the vote,” Mr. Morales told thousands of cheering supporters in the highland city of El Alto, which lies outside Bolivia’s capital, La Paz.

Mr. Morales draws much his support from the resource poor and primarily Indian Andean highlands.

His opponents are mainly in the energy and mineral rich eastern lowlands and have some Spanish ancestry.

“We will increase our majority by 15 percent,” Mr. Morales predicted at his closing rally. “We will topple the opposition.”

Mr. Morales called for the referendum to reaffirm his mandate after Bolivia’s eastern region voted overwhelmingly for autonomy in a series of referendums beginning in May.

The eastern lowland city of Santa Cruz has been a bastion of opposition to Mr. Morales. Ruben Costas, governor of the Santa Cruz province, told his closing rally that “President Morales will be revoked here, and we will affirm our own autonomy.”

“No governor of provinces which have gone through the autonomy process will be revoked,”

Mr. Costas told The Washington Times as he joined hunger strikers at a tent city erected in the Santa Cruz main square to protest central government confiscation of local revenues.

Early exit polls indicate that Mr. Morales is likely to win by a comfortable margin. Complicated electoral rules make the fate of some opposition governors uncertain, although most are expected to survive.

Mr. Morales, a former coca farmer and Bolivia’s first Indian leader, hopes that the referendum will permit him to speed up efforts to nationalize most of the nations’ economy.

The power struggle has thus far put many of Mr. Morales’ nationalization efforts on hold.

Since taking office in 2006, Mr. Morales has nationalized telecommunications and mining while raising taxes on foreign energy firms.

Few people expect Sunday’s recall vote to restore calm in one of Latin American’s poorest countries.

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