Bolivia's Richest Region Votes For Autonomy in a Landslide

SANTA CRUZ, Bolivia — Bolivia's richest region of Santa Cruz voted overwhelmingly for autonomy on Sunday in a referendum widely seen as a rejection of President Evo Morales' leftist reforms, exit polls showed.

The ballot was the first of four referendums on greater autonomy from the central government being planned by eastern provinces, raising tensions between Morales' supporters and the conservative opposition that is concentrated in the east.

According to pollster Focaliza, cited by local television, Santa Cruz residents voted 86 percent for the autonomy proposal and 14 percent against. The result had been widely expected because backers of Morales, a former coca farmer and close ally of Venezuela's Hugo Chavez, vowed to boycott the referendum.

No figures were published on the abstention rate, but a low turnout could weaken the referendum's legitimacy.

On the streets of Santa Cruz city, residents honked car horns as they celebrated victory.

"Today, a new Bolivia is born," Santa Cruz governor Ruben Costas told thousands of supporters in the city's main square where people danced soon after the exit polls were broadcast.

Official figures were due to be published on Monday.

Voting was mainly calm, but officials said at least 18 people were hurt as supporters and opponents of Morales fought with sticks and stones in Santa Cruz city. One man died after police fired tear gas, a Reuters witness said.

The referendum theoretically gives Santa Cruz's conservative leaders more control over natural resources, which include fertile farmland and about 10 percent of Bolivia's oil and natural gas reserves.