Morales' peasant revolution in the balance as Bolivians vote

Bolivia's socialist leader, Evo Morales, was hoping last night that the desperate gamble of a referendum on his leadership will finally kick-start his attempt to redistribute wealth and land in the bitterly divided nation.

Draped with garlands of coca leaves and flowers as he cast his vote yesterday, the country's first indigenous leader denounced his opponents as separatists and people only out to advance their own economic interests.

Early results and exit polls predicted he would win the recall election by a comfortable margin, with around 60 per cent of the vote, although only a small number of votes had been tallied. "From tomorrow, there will be a great meeting of our peoples, to continue to deepen the process of change," he said after voting in a village in the coca-growing Chapare region. But many Bolivians and international observers were not so sure, and opposition leaders have warned that the results will breed only more division.

As well as the President, eight of Bolivia's nine regional governors – all but two of whom have rejected Mr Morales's reform agenda – are also facing a vote, and the earliest predictions from partial counts in those races suggested that three of his opponents could be forced out.

The President has courted popularity with cash handouts to schoolchildren and to the elderly, funded by nationalising the natural gas industry, where profits have boomed thanks to sky-high global commodities prices.

And he still has strong support among the indigenous peoples, who make up more than 60 per cent of Bolivia's 9.5 million population. "We want change. That's why we're voting for Evo," said Daniel Ibanez, a mechanic, lining up to vote in a school yard in the slum city of El Alto, near La Paz. "You can really feel the change. The right-wing governors won't let him govern."

On the shore of Lake Titicaca, Aymara Indians were steadfast in their support of the President. "For more than 500 years we've lived in slavery," said Rolando Choque, a 25-year-old elementary school teacher in Achacachi. "Change doesn't come overnight. It's a long road."

Plans for a new constitution that will enshrine land reform and a redistribution of proceeds from natural gas-rich regions have stalled in the face of increasingly violent opposition. Victory in the recall election would be an opportunity to smite his enemies and give new impetus to the introduction of a new constitution .

Residents in the resource-rich lowlands have chafed against Mr Morales's efforts to seize control of the natural gas industry, and European-descended elites and middle classes have feared the President will turn Bolivia into an international pariah with his courtship of the Venezuelan leader Hugo Chavez, from whom Bolivia receives economic and military aid.

"The government is a satellite of Hugo Chavez ... and wants to impose a constitution that centralises, destroys institutions and the economy," said the former president Jorge Quiroga, who heads the rightist opposition party Podemos. "The President needs to divorce Chavez and marry Bolivia."

Fury over Mr Morales's reform plans is so high in some areas that four regions have passed symbolic votes declaring autonomy from the central government. Percy Fernandez, the Mayor of Santa Cruz, Bolivia's largest and most prosperous city, recently went as far as calling for a coup. "This government has not learnt how to govern, and for that reason I ask the armed forces to overthrow the President," he said.

Opposition to Mr Morales and his Movement Toward Socialism in these areas is such that last week, 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 protesters prevented his plane from landing. At least two people have been killed in clashes and Mr Morales had to abandon plans for an energy summit with Mr Chavez after demonstrations in the gas-rich Tarija province.

On the other side, pro-Morales groups have staged anti-American demonstrations. "They'll remain deadlocked and each side will use it to become more deeply entrenched in their positions," said Kathryn Ledebur, director of the Andean Information Network.

Early reports from international observers suggest the poll is running smoothly, with reports of stolen ballot papers in one pro-Morales town apparently being an isolated incident.

But there are fears that some opposition-controlled regions may not recognise the poll results. Even the rules of the recall election are in dispute. The outcome could trigger a legal showdown because of rules that make it easier to unseat the governors than the President. To unseat him, opponents of Mr Morales have to claim more than 53.7 per cent of the vote, more than the percentage of his victory in the 2005 election landslide. Ousting governors requires no more than 50 per cent.

Farmers' champion

Evo Morales' landslide victory in 2005 was a decisive moment for Bolivia's impoverished indigenous population, which – unusually in South America – is a majority in the country, but which has long been dominated by a richer elite descended from European settlers.

Mr Morales is an Aymara Indian from a poor family, born in 1959 in the highlands of Orinoca Oruro, where only two of his six siblings survived.

In his youth, he was a llama herder, a baker and a trumpet player, and a farmer of coca, the raw material for cocaine and the bane of US relations with Bolivia. As union leader and now President, Mr Morales has championed coca farmers, highlighting the plant's legal medicinal and ritual uses.

His election – at the second attempt – promised sweeping reforms that could lift Bolivia's poor, redistributing land to peasant farmers and ensuring a more equitable distribution of proceeds from gas and minerals.

The agenda puts him in the same orbit as Venezuela's Hugo Chavez, of whom he is an admirer. But while Mr Morales had promised consensus, middle-class supporters have peeled away.