LA PAZ, Bolivia — President Evo Morales took a major step toward creating a socialist state that empowers the indigenous majority when about 60 percent of Bolivians approved a new constitution on Sunday.
The new charter also allows Morales to seek re-election to a five-year term in December.
The country's first self-identified indigenous president, Morales begins the race as the heavy favorite to remain in power until 2014.
Vice President Alvaro Garcia said Sunday's victory marked a watershed because it essentially would end the sometimes violent debates that have wracked this politically turbulent country since 2000.
Never miss a local story.
"There will still be conflict and tension," Garcia told McClatchy in an exclusive interview Sunday afternoon in the Gold Salon at the presidential palace. "But from here on out, this country will be governed by three principles: equality, autonomy and a strong state presence in the economy. From here on out, we will only debate these principles on the margin."
Morales had sought the new constitution even before he became president three years ago, as part of his plan to carry out a social revolution in power.
As president, Morales has "nationalized" foreign companies by sharply raising their taxes and used the windfall to establish pensions for the elderly and sharply increase state spending on public works.
Morales, 49, has allied with Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez and Cuba's Fidel Castro — all in the name of giving the poor a greater share of the political and economic pie — while expelling the U.S. ambassador in September and kicking out Drug Enforcement Administration anti-drug agents this week. Bolivia is the world's third biggest producer of coca, the raw leaf that is the main ingredient in cocaine. Morales, a coca farmer, still heads the country's coca growers union.
While Sunday's results may have reassured Morales and Garcia that Bolivia is heading in the right direction, they scared many descendents of the Spanish who colonized this country nearly 500 years ago.
"The new constitution will divide the country by giving special rights to some people," Gerardo Zevallos, a 59-year-old architect, said after voting. "People like me will become second-class citizens. This is an act of revenge."
"We're being discriminated against," said Aurora de Lopez, another light-skinned voter.
Opposition was concentrated in cities and in Bolivia's eastern lowlands, centered in Santa Cruz, the country's economic capital.
Light-skinned Bolivians have held political and economic power for generations in a country where 60 percent of the population — nearly all of them indigenous — live on $2 per day or less.
The new charter enshrines greater government control of the economy and limits the size of new landholdings in an attempt to redistribute land to peasants.
It gives special rights to Indians, who would be guaranteed a certain number of seats in Congress and on the Supreme Court and would have to approve exploration of minerals and natural gas on their territories.
The new constitution also gives a greater form of autonomy sought by conservative governments in the eastern lowlands — a measure included to weaken opposition to the constitution.
Many analysts predict that conflicting and vaguely worded articles in the new constitution will ensure continuing battles.
Nonetheless, Sunday's result continued a string of political victories for Morales. The last came in August when 67 percent of Bolivians voted for him to remain in power while ousting two governors opposed to him.
That election took place amid such heavy polarization that Morales could not even campaign in five of the country's nine states before the referendum.
Morales campaigned freely for this referendum, in a sign that tension has eased.
When Garcia stood in line to vote at a school Sunday afternoon in La Paz, some voters in the middle-class neighborhood whistled in derision and shouted "Go home!" But many others applauded him.
During the interview afterward, Garcia dismissed those who say the new constitution creates special rights for indigenous people at the expense of others.
"For anyone to say that in a country with a history of colonization and racism is a scandal," said Garcia, a former Marxist sociology professor who spent five years in prison in the 1990s, charged with conspiring to overthrow the state that he now helps lead.
In a country where marchers airing a grievance block roads and highways nearly every day, Sunday felt like a festive holiday, as ordinary people thronged the streets on foot or bicycle.
Under Bolivian law, nearly all vehicles were banned from the streets, alcohol sales were prohibited and voting was obligatory.
Enterprising Bolivians grilled such local delicacies as cow hearts outside voting precincts, on a day when most restaurants were closed.
MORE FROM MCCLATCHY