Bolivia's Morales to keep up hunger strike protest
LA PAZ (Reuters) - Bolivian President Evo Morales vowed on Sunday to continue a hunger strike now three days old until opposition lawmakers approve an electoral law seen helping allies of the former coca farmer in a December vote.
The leftist president, who says he once went without food for 18 days in his days as a union leader, stopped eating on Thursday to protest opposition efforts to block the election law in Congress.
Rightist opponents fear that the bill, which has already been partially approved, would give Morales an edge in the legislature by assigning more seats to poor, indigenous parts of the energy-rich country where he is popular.
"Christ gave his life for the poor, and we're here to give our lives for the poor," Morales, the impoverished country's first Indian president, told state television in an interview. He looked in good spirits and said he felt "rested."
Morales, a close ally of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, has slept for three nights on a mattress on the floor of the presidential palace surrounded by hand-written protest banners and supporters chewing coca leaves to ward off hunger.
The framework of the election bill was passed on Thursday, but Congress must still approve the details.
Morales' party has enough votes to ratify it in a joint session of the lower house and Senate, but the opposition is refusing to give the quorum needed to vote on the measure, which confirms December 6 as the general election date.
"Their plan is to stop the elections ... they know we can win with two thirds of votes," Morales said, branding his rivals "racist, fascist (and) selfish."
Recent polls show Morales, a fierce critic of Washington, is far ahead of his closest rivals for the presidency. He is popular among the Andean nation's indigenous majority for championing their rights since he took office in 2006.
The cornerstone of his pro-indigenous policies is a new constitution, which was approved in a referendum in January with more than 60 percent support.
It calls for a December general election in which Morales will run for re-election and a new Congress will be chosen. The deadline for setting the ballot's date was April 9.
Congress was due to meet again late on Sunday, but some opposition members have said they want to negotiate specifics with the ruling party before attending a voting session.
During Sunday's television interview, Morales took a phone call from Venezuela's Hugo Chavez, who expressed his support. Morales said Cuba's ailing Fidel Castro had also called.
"We talked and I almost cried after hearing the voice of my comrade Fidel," he said.
In a concession to his critics, Morales ordered authorities on Saturday to compile a new electoral census. Opposition lawmakers had said Morales could take advantage of "flaws" in the existing census to commit vote-rigging.
Several opposition politicians have called Morales' hunger strike "political blackmail," while former President Jorge "Tuto" Quiroga dismissed it as "a presidential diet."
Morales said he went 18 days without eating in 1998 to protest a government policy on coca, the raw material for cocaine but which is also revered by Bolivian Indians for its medicinal and nutritional properties.
"We left staggering; everything looked a kind of yellow color," said Morales, who rose to prominence as the leader of the coca farmers' union.
(Editing by Eric Walsh)
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