Bolivians protest Morales' new bid to extend term limits

LA PAZ (Reuters) - Thousands of Bolivians marched through streets across the Andean country on Tuesday to protest a new bid by leftist President Evo Morales to clear the way for him to run for a fourth term in 2019.

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Morales had accepted defeat in early 2016 when 51 percent of Bolivian voters rejected his proposal to reform the constitution to end existing term limits in a referendum.

But last month, Morales’ Movement to Socialism (MAS) party asked the country’s highest court to rescind legal limits barring elected authorities from seeking re-election indefinitely, arguing that these violate human rights.

Carrying signs that read “Bolivia said ‘no’!” and waving the red, yellow and green Bolivian flag, protesters said Morales wants to tighten his grip on power in the vein of Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro, a leftist ally considered a dictator by the opposition.

“This is a political dictatorship... we’re not Venezuelan, we’re Bolivian,” Remigio Figueredo, a peasant leader said in La Paz’ San Francisco square, where thousands gathered at the same time a World Cup qualifying match between Bolivia and Uruguay was televised.

The Morales government dismissed the protests as political rallies disguised as a grassroots movement and said the right-wing opposition wants to ensure Morales cannot run in the 2019 race.

“Any constitutional reform needed can be implemented when the will of the people is at stake,” Justice Minister Hector Arce said on TV channel Cadena A.

Historically unstable Bolivia has enjoyed relative prosperity and calm under Morales, the country’s first indigenous president who came to power in 2006 and whose approval ratings now hover at around 50 percent.

Morales has said he would happily give up office but that his supporters are pushing for him to stay.

The Plurinational Constitutional Court has until December to rule on the request by Morales’ party or extend the deadline for doing so.

Protests were also held in the Bolivia’s biggest city, Santa Cruz, and in regional capitals across the country.

Reporting by Daniel Ramos and Reuters TV; Writing by Mitra Taj; Editing by Richard Borsuk