Bolivian President Seeks Referendum on His Future in Office
Thursday, December 6, 2007; p A23 - Washington Post Foreign Service

By Monte Reel

SANTA CRUZ, Bolivia, Dec. 5 -- Facing a bitter political crisis over plans to rewrite Bolivia's constitution, President Evo Morales called Wednesday night for a national referendum to determine whether he should remain president.

In a nationally televised address, Morales said he would deliver the proposal to Congress on Thursday, and he challenged his main political opponents -- six of the nine regional governors -- to stake their political futures on the same kind of vote.

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"If the people say that I should go, I don't have a problem with that," said Morales, a socialist who was elected in 2005 promising to nationalize the country's natural resources and give more political power to the indigenous majority. "Let the people say who goes and who stays."

For the past 16 months, an elected assembly has been sparring over Morales's goal of revamping the constitution -- a process that Morales, Bolivia's first indigenous president, says is necessary to create a more equitable society. Facing a Dec. 14 deadline to present constitutional changes to voters, Morales's supporters in the assembly -- who hold a slim majority -- passed a rough draft of a new charter last week without the participation of opposition parties.

That sparked opposition protests that resulted in three deaths and hundreds of injuries in Sucre, where the assembly had convened. Strikes and protests have continued throughout Bolivia this week. In Santa Cruz, opposition members have camped out in the city's main square, waging a hunger strike.

"Morales is only governing for his people -- not for all of Bolivia," said Victor Hugo Bazan, 35, who participated in the hunger strike Wednesday in Santa Cruz. "He wants to become a dictator, and we can't let him do that."

Several of Bolivia's regional governors are among Morales's fiercest critics, asserting that proposed constitutional changes would weaken congressional checks and balances and put more power in the president's hands. Four of the governors traveled to the United States this week to appeal for intervention from the Organization of American States and the United Nations.

Manfred Reyes Villa, the governor of Cochabamba, was among the opposition leaders who traveled to Washington and New York this week. In a telephone interview Wednesday, he said the governors appealed to the two bodies to preserve democracy in Bolivia. He argued that Morales's plans to transfer more of the country's oil and gas revenue from regional governments to the federal government amounted to a "confiscation of resources."

"Democracy in Bolivia is at risk," Reyes Villa said.

Morales's call for a referendum appeared to be aimed directly at those who have accused him of anti-democratic actions. He said the allegations amount to political opportunism and hypocrisy.

"If they are democrats," Morales said of the governors, "then let's bet on democracy."