SANTA CRUZ, Bolivia (Reuters) - Bolivia’s richest region of Santa Cruz voted overwhelmingly for autonomy on Sunday in a vote widely seen as a rejection of President Evo Morales’ leftist reforms, exit polls showed.
The vote was the first of four referendums on greater autonomy from central government being planned by Bolivia’s eastern lowland provinces, deepening a divide between Morales’ supporters and the conservative opposition.
According to the pollster Focaliza cited by local television, Santa Cruz residents voted 86 percent in favor of autonomy and 14 percent against. The result had been widely expected because Morales backers vowed to boycott the polls and the exit polls did not estimate turnout.
On the streets of Santa Cruz city, residents honked car horns as they celebrated victory in a referendum that Morales had branded as illegal.
“We feel the battle has not been in vain,” said Rodolfo Ochoa, 30, a craftsman in the city’s main square where crowds gathered and danced soon after the exit polls were broadcast.
Voting was mainly calm, but officials said at least 18 people were hurt as supporters and opponents of Morales, a former coca farmer, fought with sticks and stones in the region’s capital. One man died as police fired tear gas to quell the unrest, a Reuters witness said.
The referendum theoretically gives Santa Cruz’s conservative leaders more control over natural resources that include fertile farmland and about 10 percent of Bolivia’s oil and natural gas reserves.
Despite Morales’ rejection of the validity of the ballot, the resounding “yes” vote could force him to negotiate with his opponents in Santa Cruz and three other pro-autonomy regions in Bolivia’s eastern lowlands.
The growing demands for regional autonomy have exposed a bitter divide between Bolivia’s wealthier lowlands and the poor Andean highlands, where tens of thousands of people marched to show support for Morales — Bolivia’s first Indian president — in several cities.
Political tensions have heightened in recent weeks in South America’s poorest country and Bolivia’s armed forces issued a rare statement on Saturday that backed the president and called the referendum a threat to national security.
The historically unstable country’s eastern areas are home to vast natural gas reserves, the second-largest in South America and a key supply source for Brazil and Argentina.
Santa Cruz also has rich farmland and its population has grown fast over the past 40 years, with Bolivians from the highlands seeking a better life due to its growing economy. It is now home to a quarter of Bolivia’s some 9 million people.
Morales, a close ally of Venezuela’s leftist President Hugo Chavez, sees the referendum as a bid to destabilize his government, engineered by conservative rivals who oppose his efforts to break up large land holdings and empower the poor, indigenous majority.
The Andean highlands are more heavily indigenous, while areas like Santa Cruz have a larger European-descended population.
Morales sought to play down the significance of the referendum in recent days and appeared on national television playing soccer earlier on Sunday.
Political commentators fear any decision by Morales to reject the vote might spark wider, potentially violent protests between his opponents and supporters.
Additional reporting by Alejandro Lifschitz, David Mercado and Carlos Quiroga; editing by Helen Popper