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Bolivians strongly back Morales in recall vote
Bolivia Referendum Heal
Supporters of Bolivia's Evo Morales celebrate during a rally in La Paz, Sunday, Aug.10, 2008. Voters vigorously endorsed President Morales on Sunday in a recall referendum he devised to try to break a political stalemate and revive his leftist crusade, partial unofficial results showed. - photo by Associated Press

LA PAZ, Bolivia - Voters vigorously endorsed President Evo Morales on Sunday in a recall referendum he devised to try to break a political stalemate and revive his leftist campaign to eliminate historical inequities, partial unofficial results showed.

More than 63 percent of voters in this bitterly divided Andean nation ratified the mandate of Morales and his vice president, Alvaro Garcia, according to a private quick count of votes from 900 of the country's 22,700 polling stations.

The 53.7 percent by which Bolivia's first indigenous president won election in December 2005 had been the previous best electoral showing for a Bolivian leader.

Morales had proposed Sunday's recall in a bold gamble to topple governors who have frustrated his bid to improve the plight of Bolivia's long-suppressed indigenous majority and extend his time in office.

Eight of the country's nine governors were also subject to recall — and two Morales foes were among the three ousted, according to the quick count, which was conducted by the Ipsos-Apoyo firm for the ATB television network. First official results were not expected until late Sunday.

"What happened today is important not only for Bolivians but for all Latin Americans," Morales told several thousand cheering supporters Sunday night from the balcony of the presidential palace. "I dedicate this victory to all the revolutionaries in the world."

He called on the country's governors to work with him "for the unity of all Bolivians" and said it is important to advance the battle against extreme poverty.

Morales' leftist agenda has met with bitter opposition in the unabashedly capitalistic eastern half of the country, where protesters who accuse him of being a lackey of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez last week blockaded airports to keep Morales from touching down for campaign visits.

All four governors there easily survived Sunday's plebiscite, as expected.

But Morales did score gains with the defeat of opposition governors in the highland province of La Paz and in Cochabamba, seat of his coca-growers movement. The recently elected governor of central Chuquisaca province, where pro- and anti-Morales forces are evenly divided, was exempt from the referendum.

Surprisingly, Morales was endorsed by 51 percent of voters in one of the eastern states — Pando — and won 40 percent approval or better in the other three, an indication of his potential to be a unifying force.

Cochabamba Gov. Manfred Reyes, a conservative three-time presidential candidate, refused to recognize Sunday's results, calling the referendum unconstitutional and setting the stage for a potential showdown in the volatile frontier province.

Under the law that set the referendum's rules, governors whose "no" votes exceed the percentage by which they were elected are ousted. It also lets Morales name temporary replacements pending provincial elections.

More than 100 international observers, mostly from the Organization of American States, monitored the vote. A few irregularities were reported, including the pre-dawn theft of ballots in the small pro-Morales town of Yucumo in eastern Beni state. Replacement ballots were later flown in.

Victor Hugo Cardenas — an Aymara native like Morales who was vice president from 1993-97 — predicted Sunday's vote would only make South America's poorest nation "even more difficult to govern."

But on the wind-swept shores of Lake Titicaca, from where Cardenas hails, other Aymaras were steadfast in their support of the president.

"For more than 500 years we've lived in slavery," said Rolando Choque, a 25-year-old elementary school teacher voting in Achacachi. "Change doesn't come overnight. It's a long road."

Political analyst Kathryn Ledebur of the Andean Information Network said Sunday's results could be used by Morales "to try to go ahead with the fight against poverty ... or it could just entrench the situation further."

Morales has been unable to get a date set for a nationwide vote on a new constitution that would give indigenous groups more power and allow him to be re-elected to a second five-year term. The opposition walked out of the constituent assembly that wrote the document.

The battle for Bolivia hinges on land ownership and natural gas income. The four eastern lowland provinces — Beni, Pando, Santa Cruz and Tarija — have resisted Morales' insistence that the central government control energy profits and decide how to distribute them. The four declared themselves autonomous this year in largely symbolic votes.

While vowing not to expropriate private property, Morales has made an exception for fallow land in the east that he wants impoverished Indians to farm. The plan has made little headway, but still infuriated wealthy landowners.

Natural gas and precious metals revenues have boomed since Morales nationalized the gas fields in 2006 and renegotiated extraction contracts. Bolivia now keeps about 85 percent of these profits, and combined with rising global energy and mineral prices, exports have nearly doubled since 2005 to US$4.7 billion last year.

Populist measures that have endeared Morales to the poor majority — about 35 percent of Bolivians live in extreme poverty — have included handouts to schoolchildren and the elderly. He also has proposed a nationwide pension plan that would extend protection broadly to include workers in the informal economy and stay-at-home mothers.


Associated Press writers Carlos Valdez and Paola Flores contributed to this report.

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