April 7, 2009 / 11:30 PM / 9 years ago

Bolivian Congress tangles over electoral law

LA PAZ, April 7 (Reuters) - Bolivian lawmakers may vote on Tuesday on changes to electoral law that the opposition says could make it easier for leftist President Evo Morales to win control of the legislature in December’s general election.

The bill, which Morales sent to Congress to implement reforms in a new Constitution designed to give more power to the Indian majority, could help his backers by assigning more seats to rural and indigenous areas where he is popular.

The president’s Movement Toward Socialism, or MAS, party enjoys an overall majority in Congress when both houses convene but the opposition could block a vote on Tuesday night by staying away and preventing a quorum.

The lower house, controlled by MAS, has already approved the bill. The Senate, where the opposition has a narrow majority, has rejected it.

Morales, Bolivia’s first Indian leader, won solid victories in a recall vote last May and a constitutional referendum in January, showing strong backing for his leftist and pro-indigenous policies.

But the Senate continues to block his reforms, forcing him to rule by decree. Morales has increased state control of key sectors of the economy, including the natural gas industry and a telecommunications company.

The new bill calls for the creation of 14 special indigenous electoral districts all over the country, in places where Indian groups are a minority.

“To use a soccer analogy ... they don’t want a game of 11 players against 11 players, they want to play a game of 16 players against 11,” former President Jorge “Tuto” Quiroga, of the rightist Podemos party, said last week.

Some experts say the opposition’s complaints are overdone given there will be 130 seats in the lower house and 36 in the Senate under the new Constitution.

“I don’t think 14 seats give you control of Congress,” said Kathryn Ledebur, head of the Andean Information Network think tank. “Nor is it a forgone conclusion that indigenous representation will eternally support (Morales’ party).”

She said the opposition is weaker than before Morales took office in January 2006 partly because “their own sloppy heavy-handed tactics” of “blocking and impeding.”

Bolivia, the poorest country in South America, has seen decades of political upheaval.

The opposition is divided ahead of the election in December, when Morales will be up for reelection and new lawmakers will be chosen.

Podemos has yet to announce a presidential candidate, while several low-profile right-wing and center-left politicians have said they intend to compete against Morales. (Additional reporting by Carlos Quiroga and Diego Ore; Editing by John O’Callaghan)

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