Bolivia's Morales runs into opposition on reforms
August 31, 2007, Reuters, 9:39 a.m.

By Eduardo Garcia

LA PAZ --- Opponents of Bolivia's leftist President Evo Morales are stalling his drive to overhaul the constitution with a string of protests, claiming he wants to run the country indefinitely and amass more power. The elected assembly set up to rewrite the constitution has not met since last week following violent demonstrations in Sucre, the central city where its work began a year ago.

Opposition groups staged a general strike in six of Bolivia's nine provinces Tuesday to protest what they have branded as "undemocratic" moves by Morales. And a fistfight erupted in Congress over the ruling party's push to prosecute several top judges, which opposition leaders see as a bid to undermine the judiciary.

Bolivia's constitutional rewrite, which was supposed to be completed last month, has been plagued by delays and rows with opposition leaders suspicious of Morales' motives. They accuse him of following the lead of his two main leftist allies, Presidents Hugo Chavez in Venezuela and Rafael Correa in Ecuador, in pushing for constitutional reforms to weaken opponents and win more time in office.

"We're worried that President Evo Morales's ambition ... is killing the constitutional assembly, it's his ambition to become president for life," said former presidential candidate and assembly delegate Samuel Doria Medina.

Delegates from Morales' Movement Toward Socialism (MAS) party, who have a slim majority in the constitutional assembly, have called for reforms that would allow Morales to run for president indefinitely. That has fueled opposition accusations that Morales---Bolivia's first indigenous president ---also wants to increase presidential powers and weaken the judiciary and legislature.

"I think Morales is showing signs of authoritarianism. He wants to break completely with other parties and that's no good," said Marisol Calle, a 19-year-old film studies student. Vice President Alvaro Garcia Linera said critics of the proposal to allow indefinite reelection draw from a privileged elite that does not want an Indian in power. A top Morales aide said the United States was trying to destabilize Bolivia by channeling aid funds to opposition leaders, charges denied by Washington.

Morales was elected on promises to rewrite the constitution to empower the poor, indigenous majority, and to nationalize the energy industry, which he did last year. A poll published this week in daily newspaper La Razon showed that the approval rating for Morales remains high at 57 percent, and rises to above 80 percent in the cities of El Alto and La Paz, where the population is largely indigenous.

But in the wealthier lowland areas home to Bolivia's agricultural heartland and natural gas reserves, an increasingly restive opposition wants a new constitution that gives them more autonomy from La Paz, and even independence. The deep regional split has been intensified by hunger strikes, rallies and roadblocks calling to move the seat of government from La Paz high in the Andes to lowland Sucre.

Still, the strife does not compare to uprisings in 2003 and 2005 when two leaders were toppled as Bolivians took to the streets to demand the nationalization of the energy industry, and many analysts say the government remains strong. Roger Cortes, a politics professor at the San Andres University in La Paz, said conservative politicians and landowners from eastern Bolivia were inciting the protests because they fear Morales's pledge to redistribute swathes of ”illegally owned land” will target their properties. Although it has been riddled by delays, bickering and interference by both the government and the opposition, most Bolivians want the assembly to finish its work and some have threatened counter-protests to defend it.

"The opposition is making a mistake ... because the grass-roots movements that have been demanding the assembly for nearly two decades are not going to sit still," Cortes said.

(Additional reporting by Carlos Quiroga)

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