By FIONA SMITH, Associated Press Writer
July 1, 2006
Evo Morales, Bolivia's first Indian president, is hoping for a big win by his socialist backers in elections Sunday to chose an assembly to rewrite the constitution.
Morales is pushing for a radical overhaul of government and the economy. He has promised to "recreate Bolivia" with the document that would empower the majority Indian population, long a poor and politically marginalized underclass in this Andean nation.
The main opposition party is making Morales' close relationship with leftist Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez the central issue, saying he is directing the constitution process from behind the scenes.
Bolivians will elect 255 delegates to the assembly, which will begin its work Aug. 6. They have up to a year to retool the constitution. Two-thirds of the body must approve the changes, which then must be endorsed in a nationwide referendum.
No polls have been conducted, but the president's Movement Toward Socialism party, or MAS, is favored to win a majority.
While the government has used decrees to advance some of its goals, such as nationalizing natural gas on May 1, it wants the constitution to enshrine its accelerated transfer of state-owned land to peasants and the seizing of unproductive lands.
The Movement, which includes landless peasants, coca growers and middle-class intellectuals, wants to give civic movements the power to vet government spending and to guarantee access to free health care.
Morales asked his supporters to identify political enemies at his final campaign rally on Thursday night.
"I need the support of the people to confront provocation, aggression. The foreign companies are not sleeping; the bourgeoisie that democracy pushed out is still organizing to turn us back," Morales told thousands of supporters as fireworks exploded overhead.
The main opposition party, Podemos, favors switching to a parliamentary system which would weaken the presidency in a country that has seen 189 coups d'etat since its 1825 independence. Podemos would also introduce direct elections for more political offices and increase prison terms for violent criminals.
Critics claim that Morales will use the assembly to increase his power like Chavez, who held a constituent assembly in 1999 which concentrated executive power and hastened his re-election.
Podemos leader Jorge Quiroga attacked Morales' ties to Chavez again at his closing campaign rally.
"Chavez can buy the MAS, but never Bolivia," Quiroga said to a large gathering in the city of Santa Cruz. He asked supporters to make a sign of the cross to defend Catholicism, which the MAS has said it wants to remove as the country's official religion.
Perhaps the most divisive issue Sunday is a separate ballot question asking whether voters favor shifting many executive and financial powers to the states from the central government.
Santa Cruz, Bolivia's wealthiest and largest state in the country's eastern lowlands, is spearheading the "yes" campaign.
On Wednesday, some 150,000 people gathered in the state capital of Santa Cruz, 355 miles from the federal capital La Paz, waving the Santa Cruz state flag and chanting "autonomy" in one of the country's largest demonstrations ever.
Santa Cruz generates a third of Bolivia's wealth and its elite complain its revenues are being siphoned away to subsidize the poorer and more-Indian highland regions.
It's also the center of opposition to Morales, who has said he'll vote "no," claiming autonomy will only benefit "oligarchs" and not the majority poor population.
Associated Press writer Alvaro Zuazo contributed to this report.