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Bolivians vote yes for a new constitution although tensions remain

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The Bolivian people voted Jan. 25 to accept the new constitution supported by indigenous President Evo Morales and his allies in the Movement Toward Socialism Party.

By Jan. 27, the figures were about 60 percent in favor of the constitution and about 40 percent against it, with both sides claiming the vote reflects a mandate for their respective positions.

Despite the clear victory, resistance from the opposition is expected, although the voting process went smoothly according to regional and international observers. The other factor noted by the monitors was a general sense of disunity in the country.

The “two visions of Bolivia,” as it is being described in Latin America involve how the pro-constitution majority sees the “yes” vote as moving them into the next step in the “re-founding” of the country with more rights and benefits for indigenous and low-income people among other things, while the anti-constitution group perceives the vote results as a sign of the serious divisions within Bolivia and the government needs to negotiate with them and not “impose” the constitution on their areas where most voted “no.”

Both sides spoke of further negotiations and the potential for accords, but their initial comments emphasized their respective agendas.

Morales sounded a triumphant note in a speech he gave right after the first results were gathered.

“I am taking this opportunity to express my grateful recognition of all the brothers and sisters of Bolivia, all the friends, all the citizens who through their vote, through their democratic participation, decided to re-found Bolivia.

“From 2005 to 2009 we go from win to win, and the neo-liberals, the sell-outs of the country are feeling defeated permanently thanks to the conscience of the Bolivian people,” he said. “I want you to know something; the colonial state ends here, that internal and external colonialism ends here.”

But for some of the leaders of the opposition half-moon states, the final tallies meant something else. In the Santa Cruz region, close to 65 percent of the citizens voted “no” on the new constitution.

“There were Bolivians today (Jan. 25) that expressed an opinion different from ours,” said Santa Cruz Governor Ruben Costas, one of the president’s most outspoken critics and one of the leaders allegedly connected to the many acts of violence committed against pro-government citizens. “In spite of the differences, as much theirs as ours, we believe in Bolivia and we want to advance to a better society. … We want a great and united country, a true change with ample consensus and not by impositions.”

In a statement released the following day, Costas was more emphatic.

“The people of Santa Cruz insist on demanding recognition of their departmental autonomy in the form and content approved in the autonomist referendums and the rejection of the false and anarchic autonomy of the MAS Party.

“To deny the existence of the ‘no’ expressed throughout the country is not valid, and even less so if they impose their project by force, they will encounter our firm and implacable resistance,” Costas warned. He said the government needed to negotiate pacts with the different regions if any progress was to be made.

The issue of Morales’ loss of standing was also repeated by a number of his critics who pointed to the lesser percentage the constitution received, 60 percent, versus the 67 percent the president earned in the referendum to decide if he was to stay in power.

“Well, yes the president did receive the backing for the new constitution,” said Mauricio Lea Plaza, an official in the opposition state of Tarija. “He did not receive the same backing as he did in the revocation referendum. … Once again, half of the country in terms of territory, has voted against the constitution.”

“In reality, what the results ratify is a divided Bolivia, a polarized Bolivia and a constitution project that does not have sufficient legitimacy to be implemented.”

Governor Ernesto Suarez of Beni, another region with a majority voting against the initiative, sounded a more cautious note.

“There is no need to act according to our hormones. We are disposed to listen to him, the president can’t cover his ears until the people tell him to with a vote. … Let’s see what the government’s position is.”

While there were different interpretations of the meaning of the vote results, the process itself was seen as being peaceful and successful. Electoral observers from the Organization of American States and the U.S.-based Carter Center sent their notes of congratulations to the Electoral Court of Bolivia, which also had monitors throughout the country.

The only negative advisory relating to the process came from representatives of the Southern Common Market, known as Mercosur, which represents the Latin American trading bloc of Argentina, Brazil, Uruguay and Paraguay. Their spokesperson was Florisvaldo Rosinha, the president of Parlasur, Mercosur’s Parliament. Rosinha said the Parlasur’s observers were worried about the general behavior of the anti-constitution group.

“It is a dangerous opposition; by its behavior in how it manipulates and misinforms.”

He said this election reminded him of how President Lula of Brazil, his home country, had won two elections but had lost in nine states; and how he was still the president of all Brazilians.

As of Jan. 28, Morales and the opposition had agreed to start a dialogue on what would happen next, but the president said he was not open to “revising” the constitution.