Bolivia votes on new constitution to give indigenous more rights

Bolivians voted on a new constitution on Sunday that would give the indigenous majority more political rights and allow socialist President Evo Morales to run for re-election.

Bolivia votes on new constitution to give indigenous more rights
Bolivians voted on a new constitution on Sunday that would give the indigenous majority more political rights and allow socialist President Evo Morales to run for re-election.

Opinion polls show about 55 percent of voters will endorse the constitution, with support highest in the western highlands where Indians are a majority, while many mixed-race people in the fertile eastern lowlands reject the charter.

"This is the only way to change our country, starting with respect for the majority we will have justice," said Panfilo Choque, 37, an artisan who voted in a poor district of La Paz, the administrative capital that sits high in the Andes.

Morales, an Aymara Indian who herded llamas as a boy, has boosted government revenues by nationalizing energy, mining and telephone companies since taking office three years ago.

As the country's first indigenous president, he has hailed the constitution as the cornerstone of his agenda to tilt the balance of power in favor of Bolivian Indians after centuries of discrimination.

"It's an historic day for democracy -- the first time a new constitution is being voted on by all Bolivians," Morales said after voting in Chapare, where his political career started as an organizer of coca growers.

Most Bolivians describe themselves as indigenous but politics and business have long been dominated by a small elite with European roots.

If approved, the charter will enshrine the Aymara moral code as the state's ethical principal: "ama qhilla, ama llulla, ama suwa" ("Don't be lazy, don't be a liar, don't be a thief.")

If the constitution is ratified, there will be an early general election in December that could give Morales another five-years in office. If it fails, he would leave office at the end of his existing term in 2011.

The constitution says the state should have a commanding role over the management of natural resources -- from rich natural gas deposits to vast tracts of agricultural land in a country where farmers have mobilized to prevent their farms from being broken up and handed over to the poor.

Right-wing opponents in the east say the charter gives them too little autonomy from the central government. Their push for more autonomy led to violent protests last year.

Ruben Costas, governor of opposition stronghold Santa Cruz, urged voters to reject the charter. He also said fraud was likely, an allegation electoral officials dismissed.

"There are good things in the constitution, but I voted 'no' to prevent the so-called majority from getting unlimited power," said Gigi Pinar, a homemaker in La Paz.

Reuters
Last Mod: 25 Ocak 2009, 17:49
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