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Bolivian leader wins referendum

Bolivian President Evo Morales claimed victory after voters approved a new leftist constitution, but opposition leaders said they also gained ground and are expected to work against some of the reforms.

Passed with about 60 per cent support in a referendum yesterday, the constitution aims to give Bolivia's indigenous majority more power, lets Morales run for re-election later this year and hands him tighter control over the economy.

Morales took power three years ago and is very popular among the poor and among Aymara, Quechua, Guarani and other indigenous groups who suffered centuries of discrimination in South America's poorest country.

"Now, excluded and marginalized people will have the same rights as everybody else," a triumphant Morales, 49, told supporters in front of the presidential palace in La Paz last night.

An Aymara Indian and former leader of coca-leaf farmers, Morales is Bolivia's first indigenous president and has followed his socialist allies, President Hugo Chavez of Venezuela and President Rafael Correa of Ecuador, in pushing through major constitutional reforms.

He will now be able to run for re-election in December and is a clear favorite to win.

But the 60 per cent "yes" vote projected in exit polls from Sunday's vote is lower than the 67 per cent Morales won in a recall election last year, and his critics focused immediately on that narrower margin as they indicated they would seek to block some of the reforms called for in the new constitution.

"The 'no' vote has put the brakes on the fools who wanted to destroy our country," opposition leader Ruben Costas said.

Violent opposition protests in September killed about 20 people and forced Morales to water down some of the constitutional changes, including radical land reform and his original plan to seek several consecutive terms in office.

Even so, many mixed-race people in the fertile eastern lowlands rejected the charter and the "no" vote prevailed in four of Bolivia's nine provinces, according to the exit polls.

Morales has said Bolivia will need to pass about 100 laws in the next few years in order to implement most of the reforms laid out in the constitution, including the rules for the election of Supreme Court judges in a popular vote.

To do so, he will need to work with the opposition, which will in return push for greater autonomy for relatively wealthy eastern provinces, where Morales is not popular and where a European-descended or mixed-race elite dominates the economy.

The new constitution will give the Indian majority more seats in Congress and greater clout in the justice system. It also officially recognizes their pre-Columbian spiritual traditions and promotes their languages.

"The new constitution will ensure equality for all Bolivians," said Teresa Penaranda, a 49-year-old homemaker, carrying a colorful Aymara flag after she voted in the city of Cochabamba.