Sunday, May 4, 2008; 5:26 PM
SANTA CRUZ, Bolivia (Reuters) - Sporadic clashes broke out in Bolivia's richest region of Santa Cruz on Sunday during voting on an autonomy referendum that is widely seen as a defiant rejection of President Evo Morales' leftist reforms.
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 main city, Santa Cruz. One man died as police fired teargas to quell the unrest, a Reuters witness said.
Morales, Bolivia's first indigenous president, says the referendum on autonomy from the central government is illegal and his backers vowed to boycott the ballot, meaning a "yes" vote is expected. Some protesters burned ballots and ransacked polling stations.
"This is a struggle for liberty. Liberation struggles are never easy," Mayor Percy Fernandez of Santa Cruz, the tropical region's capital, told reporters earlier.
The referendum would theoretically give 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 ballot, a resounding "yes" vote could force him to negotiate with his opponents in Santa Cruz and other pro-autonomy regions in Bolivia's eastern lowlands, or could set the two sides on a collision course.
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 on Sunday 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.
Because a 'yes' result is almost certain, political analysts say the result will be measured by how many turn out to vote. They say it will lose legitimacy if turnout is less than 50 percent.
"More people will abstain than are admitting to it now and more people will actually vote 'no,"' predicted Alvaro Puente, an analyst in Santa Cruz city.
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 landholdings and empower the poor, indigenous majority.
The Andean highlands are more heavily indigenous, while areas like Santa Cruz have a larger European-descended population.
He sought to play down the significance of the referendum in recent days and appeared on national television playing soccer 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 and Cynthia Osterman)