December 9, 2007 / 3:06 AM / 12 years ago

Bolivia assembly to vote on new constitution

(Updates with session beginning, adds quotes, previous LA PAZ)

By Sergio Burgoa

ORURO, Bolivia, Dec 8 (Reuters) - The assembly rewriting Bolivia’s basic law reconvened on Saturday night to vote article by article on a draft constitution that has caused a deep split and violent protests in the poor Andean country.

Among controversial reforms the assembly could approve this weekend are allowing presidents to serve more than one consecutive five-year term, turning the bicameral legislature into a one-house body and granting Indian communities and provinces more autonomy from the central government.

Of the assembly’s 255 delegates, only 153 — most from the ruling Movement Toward Socialism party — joined Saturday’s session in Oruro two weeks after three people died in violent protests in Sucre, the assembly’s original base.

President Evo Morales and his MAS party aim to use the new constitution to empower Bolivia’s poor Indian majority after centuries of discrimination. Critics say he is using the assembly to grab more power and make radical reforms.

The assembly’s work was so controversial it was stalled for months because of fear of violence against delegates. But two weeks ago, it met under military guard and approved an outline of the constitution in a vote boycotted by the opposition.

That vote sparked the large protests in Sucre and a general strike in six of the country’s nine provinces, so the assembly was moved to Oruro, 140 miles (230 km) south of La Paz.

On Saturday, miners loyal to Morales guarded the university auditorium where the session was being held, exploding small dynamite charges occasionally to intimidate any potential anti-assembly protesters.

"We’ve got a lot to do, a lot to discuss," peasant leader and assembly President Silvia Lazarte, told reporters in Oruro.

Bolivia’s largest opposition force, the rightist Podemos party, did not attend on Saturday, apparently in a boycott of the proceedings. Seven delegates from the centrist National Unity party were almost the only opposition presence.

Morales’ Movement Toward Socialism, or MAS, and its allies have almost 150 votes in the assembly. Each proposed new article for the constitution must be approved by two-thirds of those present at each session.

The final text must be ratified in a single vote by at least 170 delegates, or two-thirds, of the entire assembly. It is not clear whether MAS has the support it needs for that vote.

Articles that do not get passed in the assembly will go to a national referendum that would be followed by another national referendum on the new constitution as a whole.

Morales became Bolivia’s first leader of indigenous descent in January 2006, ending the political dominance of a mainly white economic elite.

He is an ally of Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez, whose own constitutional reform project was defeated narrowly in a referendum last weekend. Another ideological ally, Ecuador’s Rafael Correa, is also pushing changes to his country’s constitution. (Writing by Fiona Ortiz; Editing by Peter Cooney) (e-mail: buenosaires.newsroom@reuters.com; Reuters Messaging: fiona.ortiz.reuters.com@reuters.net; telephone: +54 11 4318 0618))

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