LA PAZ – Bolivian President Evo Morales signed into law Tuesday a long-delayed measure authorizing early presidential and congressional elections on Dec. 6.
Morales, who spent five days on hunger strike to force lawmakers to act on the legislation, enacted the statute just after midday during a crowded, festive ceremony organized at the doors of Government Palace in La Paz.
In his speech, the leftist president described as “historic” the passing of the measure applying the new constitution that took effect in February after it won voters’ approval in a referendum.
Morales expressed his “deepest respect and admiration” for the social and union movements that mobilized to support him since he launched his hunger strike last Thursday.
Now more than three years into a five-year term, the first indigenous president of the majority-Indian nation plans to seek a renewed mandate that would allow him to remain in office until 2014.
After Congress missed the deadline set by the new charter for passing a law to regulate December’s presidential and legislative elections and the gubernatorial and mayoral balloting set for April 2010, Vice President Alvaro Garcia Linera convened marathon talks aimed at reaching consensus on a bill.
More than 24 hours of negotiations culminated late Monday in a draft text that was approved by the full Congress hours later.
To secure an accord, Morales’ MAS party had to agree to demands from the right-wing opposition for the establishment of a new voter roll accompanied by the use of biometric technology to prevent fraud at the polls.
The law reserves seven seats in the lower house of Congress for representatives of Bolivia’s indigenous peoples and, for the first time, extends voting rights to expatriates.
Another provision mandates that along with the presidential and congressional contests, the Dec. 6 ballot will include referendums in five provinces on proposals for greater autonomy from the central government.
The eastern, lowland provinces of Santa Cruz, Beni, Pando and Tarija already voted for autonomy in 2006, but will now have to conform their plans to the new constitution.
Morales was elected in a landslide in December 2005, garnering nearly 54 percent of the vote in a field of 11 candidates. In recall referendums held last summer, the president and vice president were confirmed in office with around 67 percent of the vote.
The constitution approved in January aims to empower Bolivia’s Indian majority and narrow the 90-1 gap in wealth between the richest and poorest sectors of the population.
Opposition to the new charter was strongest in relatively prosperous Santa Cruz, Beni, Tarija and Pando, where public life is dominated by mainly white business elites.
One of those provinces, Tarija, also holds the lion’s share of the estimated 48 trillion cubic feet of natural gas that constitutes Bolivia’s main resource.
Last August, militants demanding virtual independence for the lowland provinces stormed government buildings, blocked roads and attacked energy facilities. EFE