Last stand for opposition in Bolivia elections

LA PAZ, Bolivia — Bolivian President Evo Morales seeks to take control of the last bastion of political opposition to his campaign to redistribute Bolivia’s wealth and land to the indigenous majority with regional elections on Sunday.

Morales and his Movement Toward Socialism own a comfortable majority in Congress and the military’s loyalty. They could soon win a friendly judiciary: Voters this year for the first time choose the nation’s top justices.

But even with two-thirds of Bolivians behind him, Morales continues to be frustrated by opposition governors in the South American nation’s eastern lowland states.

There the president and his allies have recruited locally famous candidates from outside party ranks — including a beloved 62-year-old state university headmaster and a 26-year-old former Miss Bolivia.

Former headmaster Carlos Cabrera, the pro-government candidate in opposition controlled Tarija state, is running as a consensus builder who can improve a troubled relationship with Bolivia’s central government.

“I can guarantee that in Tarija there will be peace,” he told The Associated Press. “I can be the conduit for dialogue between the president and my state.”

His opponent in a tight race, incumbent Gov. Mario Cossio, promises a hard line against Morales’ government.

Two years ago, eastern states including Tarija endorsed greater autonomy from the central government in violence-wracked referendums.

But efforts to expand local independence have stalled and Bolivia’s once-fiery opposition is now in disarray, reeling from Morales’ landslide December re-election and hobbled by criminal investigations that its leaders say amount to a witch hunt.

Morales denies that politics is behind the prosecution of opponents, who include his main rival in 2009 elections. Defeated at the polls, Manfred Reyes Villa fled to the United States to seek political asylum and avoid an investigation into alleged election fraud.

On Wednesday, the president signed legislation that would broaden the ability to prosecute corruption or illegal enrichment by public officials.

Three recent ex-presidents, all reviled by Morales, have denounced the legislation, accusing Morales of using the judicial system for political purposes.

It’s beyond dispute that Morales and his allies have upended Bolivia’s status quo. They have sponsored a new voter-approved constitution that empowers the Indian majority. And they have given dispossessed peasants fallow lands the government has seized from soy magnates and ranchers.

Sunday’s vote will determine “the strength and size of the opposition against Morales,” said political analyst Jim Schultz of the Democracy Center in Cochabamba.

Polls show allies of Morales could win seven of Bolivia’s nine statehouses, a gain of two governorships — both in the eastern lowlands.

The largest political prize in the east, the agricultural heartland state of Santa Cruz, still appears to be out of reach for Morales.

But a strong pro-Morales showing on Sunday, when state legislatures will be elected for the first time and local governments strengthened, would effectively hamstring the eastern autonomy movement. It has tried in vain to wrest control of royalties on Bolivia’s natural gas deposits, which are concentrated in the region, away from the central government.

Morales’s allies have nominated beauty queen and political novice Jessica Jordan in Beni state.

Jordan, a light-skinned oddity in a predominantly indigenous movement, has barnstormed by small plane and riverboat across the flood-prone state the size of England with fewer than 200 miles of paved roads, to promote plans to reduce poverty by building highways and expanding basic services such as running water and health care.

“I ask, ‘Where are all the qualified people in the current state government? What have they done for my region that is in such sad condition,'” she told The Associated Press by phone.

Well spoken and personable, Jordan nevertheless raised questions about her political savvy when she proposed forcing convicted murderers to toil in Bolivia’s mines. Mining workers’ groups — a powerful and revered special interest in Bolivian politics — quickly rejected the proposal.

Jordan trails the front-runner, incumbent Gov. Ernesto Suarez, by double-digit margins.

Political analyst Carlos Cordero says Morales, a former coca farmer union leader who grew up dirt poor, is trying to broaden his political base with untraditional candidates like Jordan.

And Morales’ has made a point of promoting women to prominent posts; his Cabinet is equal parts male and female — though they tend toward middle-aged Indians in “pollera” skirts and shawls.

Jordan, the well-traveled daughter of a British oil engineer and an affluent Bolivian mother, favors designer-casual wear and towers over most Bolivians at 5 feet 11 inches (1.75 meters).

Pro-government candidate Luis Flores led opinion polls in the tiny northern state of Pando, where a criminal investigation ousted opposition Gov. Leopoldo Fernandez, who has been jailed for more than a year while prosecutors investigate September 2008 rioting in which at least 15 people were killed.

Prosecutors accuse Fernandez of instigating the violence, a charge he denies.

Source: AP


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