Besieged Morales pins hopes on popular vote

Bolivia's president, Evo Morales, is urging his deeply divided country to come together, two days before a potentially explosive national referendum on whether he and eight powerful regional governors should stay in office.

Sunday's recall referendum is the latest stage of a struggle pitting Mr Morales, a leftist and the first indigenous leader of a country that is more than 60 per cent American Indian, against the governors and old political establishment, over his attempts to reform the constitution.

The struggle has turned increasingly violent: two people were killed in demonstrations this week and several more injured.

The unrest forced Hugo Chavez, the Venezuelan leader who is Mr Morales' chief ally in the hemisphere, and President Cristina Kirchner of Argentina to call off planned visits to Bolivia, during which a natural gas export deal had been due for signature.

The head of the Organisation of American States, Jose Miguel Insulza, has also declared himself "deeply concerned" about the worsening turn of events, warning that "violence, confrontations and grave disagreements" could prevent a peaceful solution to the crisis.

On Wednesday, security concerns obliged Mr Morales to hold the Independence Day celebrations in his power base of La Paz rather than Sucre, the constitutional capital that is run by the opposition. He was also unable to visit the central town of Trinidad, where his plane did not land after protesters surrounded the airport.

Addressing supporters in the centre of La Paz, the President inveighed against "small and privileged groups" opposed to change, who were using demands for regional autonomy as a cover for their goal of separatism and independence. "These groups do not want equality among Bolivians, they do not respect the identity and diversity of our people," he declared.

Mr Morales, who took office in January 2006, hopes a referendum win – which some recent polls have predicted – will boost his position, providing a mandate for further constitutional reforms in his remaining two-and-a-half years in office. These would include moves to enshrine land redistribution to Bolivia's indigenous majority and greater wealth sharing between the resource-rich eastern regions and the poorer mountainous west. Mr Morales would also be allowed to run for a second five-year term.

This is not the first time such tensions, and demands by the eastern provinces for autonomy, have flared up, and if the country's history is any guide, some form of compromise will be reached. But this conflict runs especially deep.

Like President Chavez, Mr Morales has nationalised key sectors of the economy, such as energy and telecommunications, antagonising industrial and landowning elites, overwhelmingly of European ancestry.

The draft constitution put forward by the government would limit large land holdings and encourage land reform. The proposals have drawn fierce opposition, along with other plans to give an expanded share of state revenues and more political say to the majority native population.

Under rules laid down by the National Electoral Court, the President and Vice-President, Alvaro Garcia Linera, will only be ousted if more than 53.74 per (the proportion that backed them in the 2005 presidential election) vote for their removal.

Regional governors however have been told they will need an absolute majority to stay in office – which could be problematic, given that the eight facing recall were only elected with between 38 and 48 per cent of the vote. Not surprisingly, some of them have publicly declared they will not accept defeat on Sunday.