Bolivia's Senate approved a bill Saturday that could open the door to new elections in the crisis-hit country, as the caretaker government prepared to meet with protesters to end weeks of unrest. At least 32 people have been killed in violence that erupted after a disputed election on Oct. 20, with blockades causing severe fuel and food shortages in La Paz and other cities. The Senate approved the proposed law after an hourslong session that began Saturday morning.
It now goes to the lower house for a second vote. Interim President Jeanine Anez will need to sign it before it can become law. Among other things, the proposed bill annuls the results of the Oct. 20 vote and allows for new elections to be held. Crucially, it also bars candidates who have served in both of the two previous terms from seeking re-election for the same position. That would prevent former President Evo Morales from contesting the presidency in the new ballot.
Congress also needs to agree on a new seven-member electoral court, after members of the previous panel were removed for allegedly manipulating results. New elections are seen as crucial to ending Bolivia's worst political upheaval in 16 years, which has deepened divisions between indigenous people loyal to Morales and Bolivia's mainly city-dwelling middle and upper classes. Morales, who had been seeking a fourth term, claimed he won last month's election, but opposition groups said the vote count was rigged. An audit by the Washington-based Organization of American States found irregularities in the results. 'Pacify the country' The Senate vote comes a day after the caretaker government filed a criminal complaint accusing Morales – Bolivia's first indigenous president who served for nearly 14 years – of "sedition and terrorism," after he allegedly called on supporters to maintain blockades. If Morales – who fled to Mexico after resigning on Nov. 10 – were charged and convicted, he would face a maximum penalty of 30 years in jail. His former top minister Juan Ramon Quintana, whose whereabouts are unknown, is also accused of the same crimes. Morales, who claims to have been a victim of a coup after losing the support of the security forces, tweeted Friday – several hours before Interior Minister Arturo Murillo referred the case to federal prosecutors – that the investigation was based on "planted evidence and manipulated recordings." Two children of Morales – Evaliz Morales Alvarado and Alvaro Morales Peredo – left Bolivia on Saturday for Argentina after being given the green light by the interim government, Murillo tweeted. Morales tweeted Saturday that Evaliz had been accused of "illicit enrichment," which he said was a lie. Right-wing senator Anez, who declared herself caretaker leader last week after Morales quit, on Friday called on anti-government protesters to "let us govern" and lift the road blocks. In a potential breakthrough in the crisis, the government announced late Friday that it would meet with various opposition groups at the presidential palace on Saturday at 2000 GMT. They hope to strike an agreement to "pacify the country," Public Works Minister Yerko Nunez told reporters. It comes after police on Thursday tear-gassed indigenous protesters who marched on La Paz with the coffins of five of the eight people killed in clashes at a key fuel plant Tuesday. The United States suggested Thursday that Morales should stay out of upcoming elections, which should be "free, fair and transparent."