Defying an opposition boycott, Bolivia's constitutional assembly approved a new charter yesterday that would empower the poor South American nation's indigenous majority and let President Evo Morales run for re-election indefinitely.
The new constitution must now be approved by Bolivians in a national referendum. No date has been set for the vote, and it is not expected to be held until September 2008.
Opposition leaders vowed to launch protests and legal challenges against the new document, which they say does not represent all Bolivians.
"This is an authoritarian project that only seeks to perpetuate Morales in power," said Reynaldo Bayard, president of the Civic Committee of Tarija, a state where many leaders oppose Morales.
But supporters say the charter is needed to give Bolivia's indigenous peoples some 62 percent of the population greater autonomy and control over their traditional lands, redressing what Morales calls centuries of discrimination by a corrupt political class dominated by a European-descended elite.
The constitution's approval, 16 months after the popularly elected assembly first convened, was celebrated with fireworks and music by supporters in this pro-Morales stronghold high in the Andes.
Morales called the approval a source of "great happiness for the indigenous and popular movement" that "consecrates a peaceful transition."
Opposition to the new charter is stiff in the country's low-lying and more-prosperous eastern states. Bolivia has been wracked by violent protests against the new constitution in recent weeks, with three people killed in rioting and various hunger strikes launched.
Assembly Vice President Roberto Aguilar said one article failed to garner a two-thirds majority in the body and will have to be approved directly by Bolivian voters. The measure, which would limit the size of individual land holdings to 10,000 hectares, has been bitterly opposed by the country's agribusiness.
Leaders in the eastern states of Santa Cruz and Tarija announced they would defy the charter and challenge its legality, and opposition officials in six of Bolivia's nine departments planned to meet soon to coordinate resistance.
The new constitution would permit the indefinite re-election of Bolivia's president something Venezuelan voters denied their socialist president, Hugo Chavez, in a referendum last week.
Chavez is a close ally and backer of Morales, and opponents of Bolivia's first indigenous president have accused him not just of following the political playbook of the leader of oil-wealthy Venezuela but also of ceding sovereignty to him.
Mindful of the accusations, Morales reiterated that no foreign military would be permitted to establish bases in Bolivia.
Morales also reminded his countryman of his plan, proposed on Wednesday, to place himself at voters' mercy in a recall election in which he could be unseated if "no" votes were to exceed the number by which he won office in December 2005, when he garnered 54 percent of the ballots.
Under the proposal, voters would also decide whether to recall Bolivia's nine state governors, six of whom are bitter opponents of Morales.