TARIJA, Bolivia (AFP) — Bolivia's gas-rich Tarija province on Sunday voted overwhelmingly in favor of greater autonomy from the socialist government of President Evo Morales, which has blasted the polls as illegal.
Around 80 percent of voters chose "yes," exit polls from competing television stations in Bolivia showed, making their province the fourth in Bolivia to back greater autonomy.
The announcement by ATB television and other media, which put the "yes" vote at between 79 and 80 percent, was greeted with cheers by hundreds gathered in Tarija's central Luis de Fuentes square, opposite the mayor and governor's offices.
Tarija Governor Mario Cossio told the crowd he expected all Bolivian provinces to follow in the footsteps of Tarija and its three neighbors.
"Autonomy doesn't stop here. Now we are four, but soon we'll be nine," Cossio said standing next to the governors of Santa Cruz, Beni and Pando, as the people chanted: "Governor! Governor!"
The four provinces from the eastern lowland region are resisting measures to redistribute land and resources pushed by Morales that would benefit the poorer, mostly indigenous Bolivians of the mountainous western regions.
However, the Morales government has slammed the referendum as a waste of time and money, saying it would not recognize the results.
"There can be no autonomy statute without first amending the constitution. Therefore, the government has clearly stated that this referendum (Tarija) has no legal underpinnings nor any bearing on the future," said government spokesman Ivan Canelas.
Exit polls showed 19.7 percent voted against autonomy and 34.8 percent of the province's 173,000 registered voters abstained, ATB said.
In the township of Bermejo, where anti-autonomy sentiments ran high, the abstention rate was 47.8 percent, the television added.
Partial official results from the referendum are not expected until Monday, with final results set for Tuesday, the Electoral Court President Mario Guzman said after voting ended at 4:00 pm (2000 GMT).
Electoral Court president Mario Guzman said voting went smoothly, except at four polling places which "we could not get to work, causing a slight loss of votes."
Local media said many voting precincts in the towns of Yacuiba and Bermejo, with strong anti-autonomy sentiments, remained closed throughout the day over safety concerns.
No major violence was reported after police and reinforcements deployed across the province ahead of the vote, amid some tension in Yacuiba and Bermejo.
Political dialogue has collapsed between the socialist central government and the right-wing opposition, led by the Podemos party and the pro-autonomy governors.
Tarija has only 400,000 inhabitants but holds 85 percent of the country's natural gas, accounting for 13 percent of the gross domestic product.
To counter the autonomy movement, Morales in May announced his own plebiscite for August 10, on his government and on provincial governors.
Morales' tenure, along with that of his vice president Alvaro Garcia Linera, formally ends in January 2011, but they could be forced out sooner if more than 53.74 percent of voters -- their margin of support in December 2005 elections -- rejects them in the August 10 vote.
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