President Morales sets date of Bolivia recall vote
May 12, 2008 -Associated Press


LA PAZ, Bolivia (AP) — President Evo Morales committed himself and Bolivia's nine governors on Monday to face recall votes on Aug. 10, gambling that his unfinished term will a survive a referendum whose peculiar rules tilt in the populist leader's favor.

"Personally I have no fear of the people," Morales said. "Let the people judge us."

Morales originally proposed the recall vote in December amid a fierce battle over his proposed draft constitution that would increase the political power of Bolivia's long-oppressed indigenous majority. Bolivia's lower house of Congress approved it but the idea went nowhere until last week, when it was suddenly revived by the opposition-controlled Senate.

The president's opponents figured Morales had been weakened by the landslide victory of the autonomy measure in Santa Cruz, Bolivia's largest and richest state. But they rushed the recall referendum through without considering the fine print — which clearly gives Morales the upper hand.

Morales immediately accepted his opponents' challenge in a nationally televised address, and signed the bill on Monday.

The referendum requires removal from office if the officials get more "no" votes than the votes they won when they were elected in 2005. The percentage of "no" votes also must top the candidates' previous winning percentage.

Morales won the presidency with 53.7 percent of the vote, a historic mandate in a country where presidents sometimes take office with half as much support.

If 54 percent vote against him in August — and the 'no' votes top the 1.5 million ballots he won in 2005 — he'll be forced to call for a new presidential election.

If either 'no' count falls short — for example, if 1.6 million Bolivians vote against Morales but turnout is high enough to keep their votes below 53.7 percent — he'll remain in office.

Bolivia's current governors, however, all won office with less than 50 percent of the vote — setting a much lower bar for their 'no' votes.

The opposition governor of La Paz state, Jose Luis Paredes, won the pro-Morales stronghold with only 38 percent in 2005. If 39 percent of the state votes against him in the recall, he'll be removed from office — even if 61 percent vote to keep him.

"It makes an unfair difference, and I'm the most affected," Paredes said. "But I also think it's a good way out of this impasse we find ourselves in. If I lose, I'm going home and President Morales will just have to choose a new governor."

Should Morales lose, he must call a new presidential election to be held between three and six months.

But any governor who loses will be immediately removed from office, with Morales naming an interim replacement until new state elections.

The language of the referendum does not prohibit Morales or the governors from running again if recalled.

Morales has agreed to the recall at arguably the most difficult moment of his young presidency — only a week after the Santa Cruz autonomy vote. Three other states plan autonomy votes in June.

While his opposition is gaining steam in the country's eastern flatlands, Morales is wagering that a recall will help his Movement Toward Socialism party pick off a governorship or two in the rest of the country — with La Paz a chief target.

"It's great Bolivian chess," said Jim Shultz, director of the nonprofit Democracy Center, which monitors Bolivian politics. "I'm assuming they've played through all the moves, and it's not a bad board for Evo Morales. Not a bad board at all."