Bolivian voters back pro-indigenous constitution

LA PAZ, Bolivia (AP) -- Bolivians easily approved a new constitution granting more power to the indigenous majority, but its weak support in the opposition-controlled lowland east leaves the racially torn country as divided as ever.

The constitution also gives its prime backer, leftist President Evo Morales, the opportunity to run for re-election and remain in power until 2014. It also calls for land redistribution and sets aside seats in Congress for minority indigenous groups.

Bolivia's first Indian president hailed the charter's passage in Sunday's peaceful referendum as the end of the "colonial state" in South America's poorest country.

"Here begins the new Bolivia. Here we begin to reach true equality," Morales told crowds packing the plaza in front of the presidential palace after an unofficial quick count showed the constitution winning 59 percent approval.

The victory was historic in nation where the oldest voters could still recall a time when Indians were forbidden to vote. But its rejection by the mestizo and European-descended minority foreshadows a political battle over vague clauses that seem to outline overlapping autonomous regions for both indigenous groups and eastern states.

Bolivia's Aymara, Quechua, Guarani and dozens of other indigenous groups only won the right to vote in 1952, when a revolution broke up the large haciendas on which they had lived as peons for generations.

But opposition leaders celebrated as well. While a majority of voters backed the charter nationwide, drawing high margins in the pro-Morales highlands, the "no" vote won greater support in at least four of Bolivia's nine states.

Opponents say Morales' focus on indigenous communitarianism ignores the freewheeling capitalism that drives the eastern lowlands' huge cattle ranches and powerful soy industry.

"If they impose (the new constitution) they will encounter resistance," said Gov. Ruben Custas of the eastern opposition state of Santa Cruz - Bolivia's richest - though he said it would be legal and peaceful.

An unofficial quick count by the Bolivian television network ATB, mirrored by other independent exit polls, showed the constitution winning with 59 percent of the vote. It had a 3 percentage point margin of error. An official vote count will be announced Feb. 4.

The comfortable 18-point margin of victory is still less than the 67-percent support Morales received in an August recall election.

The new constitution allows Morales to run for re-election in December, when Bolivians also will fill a reorganized Congress.

At the heart of the constitution is a provision granting autonomy for 36 indigenous "nations" and four opposition-controlled eastern states. But the two groups are given a vaguly defined "equal rank," likely creating a checkerboard of rival claims to open land in Bolivia's east, whose large agribusiness interests and valuable gas reserves drive much of the economy.

The constitution limits the size of future landholdings, but current landholders are exempt from the cap - a nod to the east's powerful cattle and soy industries.

President Hugo Chavez of Venezuela issued a statement congratulating Morales, saying the results consolidate Morales' "effort to push forward a peaceful and democratic revolution."

Morales has allied himself closely with Chavez in what the two leaders call "21st century socialism." He booted out Bolivia's U.S. ambassador and Drug Enforcement Administration agents after claiming they had conspired against his government last year. Washington denied the allegations.

Elected in 2005 on a promise to nationalize Bolivia's natural gas industry, Morales has increased the state's presence throughout the economy and expanded benefits for the poor.

Morales' reform project nearly failed in 2006, when an assembly convened to rewrite the constitution broke apart along largely racial lines.

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