Bolivian president warns of civil war

Bolivia’s outgoing president, Carlos Mesa, who has offered to resign to help defuse three weeks of crippling protests, has warned that the country could slide into civil war unless early elections are held.

“The country cannot continue playing with the possibility of splitting into a thousand pieces,’’ he said. “The only solution for Bolivia is an immediate electoral process. This is coming from a president who is on his way out.
It is a call to a country on the brink of civil war.’‘

Mesa’s appeal was primarily directed at supporters of the leader of the Senate, Hormando Vaca Diez, who is the next in line to the presidency if the congress accepts the resignation.

Mesa, a political independent, is urging Vaca Diez and the leader of the lower house, Mario Cossio, to join him in resigning so that national elections can be triggered as soon as August.

But local media reports said Vaca Diez planned to accept the presidency when the congress was to meet in Sucre, 320km to the south of La Paz, this week. He called for the gathering to be held in Sucre to avoid the mass demonstrations by indigenous miners, farmers and others who have brought the capital to a standstill.

Protesters want to renationalise Bolivia’s energy resources, and are also calling for the Constitution to be redrafted. Despite a formidable bounty from natural gas supplies, Bolivia is South America’s poorest country.

An agri-businessman from the gas-rich state of Santa Cruz, Vaca Diez is likely to succeed if he pursues the presidency, observers say.

He can count on the votes of his own party, the Leftist Movement Revolution, and has the support of the National Revolution Movement party of former president Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada.

Many feel Vaca Diez would be a polarising figure as president. He backs Santa Cruz business interests in their efforts to win regional autonomy and block greater state control of the gas industry. He has also pushed for stronger military action to quell the protests.

“It is hard to imagine a political development here that could be more divisive and which could more easily spark violent conflict,’’ said Jim Shultz of the Democracy Centre, a non-profit organisation.

Evo Morales, leader of the Movement Toward Socialism party and a central figure behind the protests, said his party would try to block a Vaca Diez presidency. — Â

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