LA PAZ -- Bolivians on Sunday approved the new constitution pushed for by President Evo Morales in a nationwide referendum held here Sunday, with the "Yes" votes totaling about 60 percent of those cast, according to exit polls released by several television channels after the precincts closed.
Exit polling by the PAT, Unitel and Red Uno television networks showed that between 60 and 61 percent of the voters who went to the polls supported the new charter.
The ATB television network, using its "rapid count" method, however, found that the two options were in a virtual dead heat, with the "Yes" vote coming in at 50.6 percent and "No" garnering 49.4 percent.
By regions, most of the exit polls found that the "Yes" vote had triumphed in La Paz, Cochabamba, Potosi and Oruro, and the "No" vote in the eastern lowland provinces of Beni, Pando, Tarija and in Santa Cruz, while the vote was too close to call in Chuquisaca.
The exit polling confirms the rejection of the new 411-article charter in the regions governed by autonomy-supporting opponents of the government and the "Yes" vote's success in the provinces "loyal" to Morales.
No major incidents were reported either by election authorities or by the government on the day of the vote, with 3.8 million Bolivians being called to the polls.
The new constitution would benefit the Andean nation's poor Indian majority and bring it closer to making Morales's goal of "refounding" Bolivia a reality.
Morales, who cast his ballot at a school in the coca-growing Chapare region, said the referendum gave Bolivians the opportunity to determine "the destiny and future" of the country.
"I believe in the conscience of the Bolivian people, in their strength, and the people know exactly what is being sought with this proposal for a new constitution," Morales said.
The president crafted a new constitution aimed at empowering the Indian majority and narrowing the 90-1 gap in wealth between the richest and poorest sectors of the population.
Opposition to the proposed constitution has been strongest in Santa Cruz, Beni, Tarija and Pando, where public life is dominated by mainly white business elites.
One of those regions, Tarija, also holds the lion's share of the Andean nation's estimated 48 trillion cubic feet of natural gas.
In August, militants demanding virtual independence for the lowland provinces stormed government buildings, blocked roads and attacked energy facilities.
The worst incident took place in Pando, where more than a dozen people were killed - most of them Morales supporters - in what La Paz said was an ambush directed by provincial Gov. Leopoldo Fernandez, who is now under arrest.
A subsequent report by fact-finders from the Union of South American Nations backed the government's account of the events in Pando.
Opposition leaders who voted on Sunday ripped the referendum and Morales's goal of bringing socialism to Bolivia.
Chuquisaca Gov. Savina Cuellar, a Quechua Indian and opposition member, told reporters that she voted to defend her right to work for the benefit of her children and grand
children, not for a collective state or for Morales.
"We don't want the communal (state), we want democracy," Cuellar said, referring to Morales's goal of placing collective interests above individual interests.
Morales said before casting his ballot that Pan American Energy - in which British oil major BP has a 60 percent stake - had taken $277 million out of Bolivia last year.
On Friday, Morales nationalized BP subsidiary Chaco after no deal was reached in talks aimed at securing a majority stake for state energy company YPFB.
Morales signed the nationalization decree at the Carrasco gas field, located in the central province of Cochabamba.
The decree opened the way for YPFB to take over control of all the shares the British company controlled through Pan American Energy, which is headquartered in Argentina.
Prior to the nationalization, Pan American Energy owned 51 percent in Chaco and YPFB held a 49 percent stake.
Chaco, which operates close to a dozen gas fields in Bolivia, recently announced that it would invest $64 million to increase gas production in the country.
CNE elections agency chief Jose Luis Exeni said at the ceremony in La Paz that marked the opening of voting that the struggle to hold the referendum started in 1990, when Indians staged a march to demand a new constitution.
Some 350 election observers from the Organization of American States, the Union of South American Nations, the European Union and the Carter Center, among other groups, are monitoring the voting.