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Bolivian President Evo Morales, right, waves to supporters from the balcony of the presidential palace in La Paz on Sunday. Voters strongly reaffirmed their faith in Morales on Sunday in a recall referendum. ((Juan Karita/Associated Press))

Partial unofficial results suggest that Bolivians have voted to keep their populist president, Evo Morales, in office.

He put his job on the line Sunday in a bold gamble to topple state governors who have frustrated his bid to ease the plight of Bolivia's long-suppressed indigenous majority and extend his time in office.

Eight of the country's nine state governors were also subject to recall in the plebiscite, which Morales proposed. The results suggest that three governors were ousted, including two of his foes.

Compiled by the Ipsos-Apoyo firm, the results are a quick count of votes from 1,000 of 22,700 polls across the bitterly divided Andean nation. They show more than 63 per cent of voters backing Morales, Bolivia's first indigenous president, and his vice-president, Alvaro Garcia.

Early official results as of Monday afternoon gave Morales just 52 per cent support — a figure still comfortably above the 46.3 per cent he needs to avoid being ousted. Those results, based on counts from about 5,000 polls, did not purport to be a representative national sample.

Stalemate

Morales devised the referendum in hopes of breaking a political stalemate and reviving a stalled crusade to remedy age-old inequities in one of South America's poorest countries.

"What happened today is important not only for Bolivians but for all Latin Americans," Morales told several thousand cheering supporters Sunday night from the balcony of the presidential palace in La Paz. "I dedicate this victory to all the revolutionaries in the world."

He called on the country's governors to work with him "for the unity of all Bolivians" and said it is important to advance the battle against extreme poverty.

Morales' agenda — a former coca farmer, he heads the Movement Toward Socialism party and has effectively brought Bolivia's petroleum industry under government control — has met with bitter opposition in the unabashedly capitalistic eastern half of the country.

There, protesters who accuse him of being a lackey of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez last week blockaded airports to keep Morales from touching down for campaign visits.

All four governors there easily survived Sunday's vote, as expected.

But Morales did score gains with the defeat of opposition governors in the highland state of La Paz and in Cochabamba, seat of his coca-growers movement. The recently elected governor of the central state of Chuquisaca, where pro- and anti-Morales forces are evenly divided, was exempt from the referendum.

Cochabamba Gov. Manfred Reyes, a conservative three-time presidential candidate, refused to recognize Sunday's results, calling the referendum unconstitutional and setting the stage for a potential showdown in the volatile frontier state.

Under the law that set the referendum's rules, if a president's or a governor's "no" votes exceed the percentage by which they were elected, they are ousted. Morales can then name temporary replacements pending state elections.

More than 100 international observers, mostly from the Organization of American States, monitored the vote. A few irregularities were reported, including the pre-dawn theft of ballots in the small pro-Morales town of Yucumo in the eastern state of Beni. Replacement ballots were later flown in.

Morales, elected president in December 2005, is just over halfway through his five-year term.