Bolivia's President puts his popularity to the test

Morales gambles on election to oust opposition leaders

After today's Bolivian referendum, Evo Morales will know whether he will be staying on in the presidential palace or contemplating a return to growing coca – "for medicinal purposes, not for cocaine".

The 48-year-old President, known for visiting world leaders in a woolly jumper and wearing well-worn tennis shoes at public events, gambled on a "recall referendum" to assert his popularity and call the bluff of regional governors, who seek autonomy and oppose his land reform and nationalisation policies.

As well as his popularity test, he has insisted on separate referendums in eight of the nine departments in the hope of seeing off some of the governors and giving himself a greater mandate for constitutional change, including the chance to run for a second five-year term.

Even if, as expected, Mr Morales wins his personal vote, the governors say they will not recognise the result and the poorest nation in South America faces further polarisation between the President's indigenous supporters, mainly in the highland west, and the political establishment of European or part-European descent in the wealthier, gas-rich eastern lowlands.

Most of the governors say they will not stand down if they lose their votes, while, on Thursday, Percy Fernandez, the mayor of the opposition-run city of Santa Cruz, went as far as to call for a military coup.

With some shrewd legal manoeuvring, Mr Morales has stacked all of today's polling in his favour. To oust him, the vote would have to be anything above the percentage that brought him to power in 2005 – 53.7 per cent. As his popularity is at an all-time high – 59 per cent, according to latest polls – defeat is unlikely. Under his rules, however, the governors have a tougher task. To retain their posts, they need a simple majority even though most of were voted in with far smaller votes, some as low as 38 per cent.

On the eve of the referendum, Mr Morales could hardly claim to control the whole country, described by one Bolivian political scientist as "in many, many ways a failed state ... we're becoming sort of a collection of city-states". The country's first president of pure Indian extraction was blocked from reaching two provincial cities during last week's campaigning and was forced to hold Independence Day celebrations last Wednesday in the capital, La Paz – his power base – instead of in the "constitutional capital", Sucre, where the opposition to his government is fierce.

Pre-referendum violence has left two tin miners dead and several wounded. Whatever today's results, most political analysts predict further upheaval as the nation's poor but increasingly vocal indigenous peasants face up to the political and business elite.

Mr Morales grew up herding llamas in the Andean plateau before turning to farming coca – legal in Bolivia because of its use in rituals and against altitude sickness – and rising to lead the country's coca farmer's union before the support of Aymara and Quechua Indians propelled him to the presidency in 2005. Six out of 10 Bolivians are indigenous, and it is no coincidence that the ratio of people in poverty is also six out of 10, according to the UN.

Two of Mr Morales's closest allies are Fidel Castro and Hugo Chavez, and one his campaign slogans echoed their anti-US rhetoric: "Long Live Coca, Death to the Yankees!" Another, however, "Coca, si! Cocaine, no!" reflected his view that he supports US efforts to prevent the leaf from being made into the paste which becomes cocaine.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Ashdown Group: Senior VMware Platform Engineer - VMware / SAN / Tier3 DC

£45000 - £55000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: Senior VMware Platform En...

Recruitment Genius: Purchasing Assistant

£10000 - £16000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A distributor of specialist ele...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Ledger Assistant

£17000 - £19000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A distributor of specialist ele...

Ashdown Group: Automated Tester / Test Analyst - .Net / SQL - Cheshire

£32000 per annum + pension, healthcare & 23 days holiday: Ashdown Group: A gro...

Day In a Page

Homeless Veterans campaign: Donations hit record-breaking £1m target after £300,000 gift from Lloyds Bank

Homeless Veterans campaign

Donations hit record-breaking £1m target after huge gift from Lloyds Bank
Flight MH370 a year on: Lost without a trace – but the search goes on

Lost without a trace

But, a year on, the search continues for Flight MH370
Germany's spymasters left red-faced after thieves break into brand new secret service HQ and steal taps

Germany's spy HQ springs a leak

Thieves break into new €1.5bn complex... to steal taps
Mark Zuckerberg’s hiring policy might suit him – but it wouldn’t work for me

Mark Zuckerberg’s hiring policy might suit him – but it wouldn’t work for me

Why would I want to employ someone I’d be happy to have as my boss, asks Simon Kelner
Russia's gulag museum 'makes no mention' of Stalin's atrocities

Russia's gulag museum

Ministry of Culture-run site 'makes no mention' of Stalin's atrocities
Virginia Ironside was my landlady: What is it like to live with an agony aunt on call 24/7?

Virginia Ironside was my landlady

Tim Willis reveals what it's like to live with an agony aunt on call 24/7
8 best workout DVDs

8 best workout DVDs

If your 'New Year new you' regime hasn’t lasted beyond February, why not try working out from home?
War with Isis: Iraq's government fights to win back Tikrit from militants - but then what?

Baghdad fights to win back Tikrit from Isis – but then what?

Patrick Cockburn reports from Kirkuk on a conflict which sectarianism has made intractable
Living with Alzheimer's: What is it really like to be diagnosed with early-onset dementia?

What is it like to live with Alzheimer's?

Depicting early-onset Alzheimer's, the film 'Still Alice' had a profound effect on Joy Watson, who lives with the illness. She tells Kate Hilpern how she's coped with the diagnosis
The Internet of Things: Meet the British salesman who gave real-world items a virtual life

Setting in motion the Internet of Things

British salesman Kevin Ashton gave real-world items a virtual life
Election 2015: Latest polling reveals Tories and Labour on course to win the same number of seats - with the SNP holding the balance of power

Election 2015: A dead heat between Mr Bean and Dick Dastardly!

Lord Ashcroft reveals latest polling – and which character voters associate with each leader
Audiences queue up for 'true stories told live' as cult competition The Moth goes global

Cult competition The Moth goes global

The non-profit 'slam storytelling' competition was founded in 1997 by the novelist George Dawes Green and has seen Malcolm Gladwell, Salman Rushdie and Molly Ringwald all take their turn at the mic
Pakistani women come out fighting: A hard-hitting play focuses on female Muslim boxers

Pakistani women come out fighting

Hard-hitting new play 'No Guts, No Heart, No Glory' focuses on female Muslim boxers
Leonora Carrington transcended her stolid background to become an avant garde star

Surreal deal: Leonora Carrington

The artist transcended her stolid background to become an avant garde star
LGBT History Month: Pupils discuss topics from Sappho to same-sex marriage

Education: LGBT History Month

Pupils have been discussing topics from Sappho to same-sex marriage