(above) An aerial view shows people blocking a road with gas cylinders due a shortage in La Paz, Bolivia, November 20, 2019. REUTERS/David Mercado

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Bolivia government proposes election bill as its seeks path to peace


LA PAZ/MEXICO CITY (Reuters) - Bolivia’s interim government presented a bill on Wednesday that aims to forge a path to new elections and defuse street violence that has racked the country and killed 32 people since a disputed October vote.

The South American country’s two chambers of congress are expected to debate the election bill beginning on Thursday and possibly extending into Friday, which would annul the Oct. 20 poll and appoint a new electoral board within 15 days of its passage, paving the way for a new vote after long-term leftist leader Evo Morales resigned under pressure this month.

A date for new elections was not included in the proposal. The bill called for a “credible and professional” election body “in order to pacify the country and redirect democratic institutionality.”

Currently led by a caretaker government, Bolivia is grappling to mend stark divisions between Morales’ supporters and opponents seeking to move beyond his nearly 14-year rule.

Morales stepped down on Nov. 10 under pressure from protesters, civil groups, security forces and allies, as well as an international audit that found serious irregularities in the election count and cast doubt on his announced outright victory.

Since then, an interim government under conservative former Senator Jeanine Anez has struggled to quell deadly violence, and fanned some divisions with abrupt shifts in policy away from Morales, the country’s first indigenous president.

In a statement earlier Wednesday, Anez said she would present the bill calling for new elections “as the whole country is demanding” and that it would be through legal, constitutional channels unless lawmakers blocked it.

“We have developed a basic bill. It can probably be corrected, agreed upon, enriched by all the sectors that are involved with the aim of pacifying the country and choosing our rulers,” she said. “But there will be elections in the country; we guarantee it.”

Conflict in the region of Cochabamba and the high-altitude city of El Alto has rattled Bolivia over the last week since Morales’ departure, with clashes at a gas power plant blockade on Tuesday that left eight people dead.

The Ministry of Defense in a statement Wednesday said that supporters of Morales’ MAS party were surrounding the plant with the intentions of damaging it with explosives. The ministry said the Armed Forces would safeguard the plant from any attack or takeover attempt.

The total number of deaths in the post-election unrest rose to 32, according to Bolivia’s official human rights ombudsman - most of those in the last 10 days - sparking calls for investigations into human rights abuses.

On Wednesday, hundreds of people queued to refill gas canisters in La Paz, while lines of cars snaked though the city’s roads waiting to refuel after protests by Morales supporters choked off fuel and food supplies in recent days.

In a news conference on Wednesday, government minister Arturo Murillo claimed that Morales was continuing to stoke unrest. He showed reporters a video of a phone call including audio allegedly of Morales directing plans for blockades.

Reuters was not able to verify the contents of the video.

“That is Evo Morales doing state terrorism,” Murillo said, without naming the source of the three-minute video. “In the next few hours we will file an international lawsuit on this.”

Morales, at a news conference in Mexico, where he was granted political asylum when he fled Bolivia, in turn accused the interim government of using excessive force against peaceful protesters. The military has said protesters have used explosives, guns and homemade bazookas in clashes.

“They are using bullets against people peacefully mobilizing in defense of democracy,” said Morales, who has talked about returning to Bolivia to finish his term until Jan. 22. “It makes us remember times of military dictatorships.”

Reporting by Daniel Ramos in La Paz and Diego Ore in Mexico City; Additional reporting by Monica Machicao; Writing by Adam Jourdan and Cassandra Garrison; Editing by Bill Berkrot and Leslie Adler