LA PAZ, Jan 26 – Bolivian President Evo Morales celebrated victory Monday after his compatriots approved sweeping constitutional changes that would empower the country’s indigenous majority and let the president run for re-election.
Exit polls by two of the country’s largest television networks showed that the new constitution had been approved in Sunday’s referendum by a comfortable margin.
The changes were approved by 60 percent of the votes cast, according to the Unitel television network. ATB television network reported 58-percent approval. Official returns were expected later.
"Now Bolivia is being re-founded!" Morales told supporters who gathered at the Plaza de Armas in La Paz to hear him speak from the balcony of the presidential palace.
"Here the colonial state ends, and internal and external colonialism end," said the leftist Morales, Bolivia’s first indigenous president.
Morales called on the country’s governors and mayors "to work together to implement the new constitution."
The new document scraps the single-term limit for the president, allowing Morales to stand for a second five-year term.
The changes also allow 36 indigenous communities and groups to win the right to territory, language and their own “community” justice, and enact agrarian reform measures by limiting the size of landholdings.
However, the exit polls also showed that the referendum was badly defeated in the eastern departments of Santa Cruz, Tarija, Beni and Pando, hotbeds of activity against the leftist president.
Morales earlier said that he expected the measure to be approved by 70 percent of voters, so the results encouraged his opponents.
In Chuquisaca, Governor Savina Cuellar held a rally and called for her people to refuse to abide by the document.
Santa Cruz Governor Ruben Costas told supporters at a rally that hundreds of thousands of Bolivians voted against the measure, and that this shows that the opposition has gained strength.
Tarija Governor Mario Cossio, another Morales opponent, called for a "national pact" — negotiations with between Morales and eastern governors — that could lead to a new constitution.
And former vice president Victor Hugo Cardenas said that if voters did not vote for the referendum in Bolivia’s nine departments it would be considered illegitimate and fuel divisions.
The eastern Bolivian governors are seeking increased autonomy and more authority over mineral resources — especially oil and gas — found in their region.
Some Catholic and evangelical clerics had opposed the referendum, fearing that the new constitution’s declaration that the country is "independent" from religion could pave the way for abortion rights and gay marriage.
Ahead of the vote Vice President Alvaro Garcia Linera made it clear that the national result was binding and applied to all Bolivians.
Although Morales is widely popular, his rise has heightened deep geographic, racial and class divisions in the country that are not expected to ease with the vote.
Bolivia already flirted with unrest bordering on civil war in September, when 20 indigenous government supporters were killed in a northern state.
Conflict has been brewing since Morales took office in 2005 and announced he would upset a centuries-old political order inherited from Spanish colonial times and subsequent military regimes.
The opposition, led by state governors in the country’s more prosperous east, fear that Morales’ march towards a socialist state is taking their nation into the orbit of Venezuela’s fervently anti-US president, Hugo Chavez, and away from economic efficiency.
Morales’s nationalization of the telecommunications and gas sectors has scared off foreign investors, worsening state finances that are now also battered by the global economic crisis.