Bolivian Congress approves controversial vote law
By Eduardo Garcia
LA PAZ (Reuters) - Bolivia's Congress approved on Thursday the "overall content" of an electoral law hours after President Evo Morales went on hunger strike to protest at opposition lawmakers' efforts to block the bill.
Lawmakers must still vote on the details of the election reform law, which is seen helping the leftist president in a general election in December by assigning more seats to poor, rural areas where he is popular.
Morales, the Andean nation's first indigenous president, started a hunger strike earlier on Thursday, accusing his rightist opponents of blocking the proposal.
"Faced with the negligence of a bunch of neoliberal lawmakers, we have no choice but to take this step (hunger strike) ... they don't want to pass a law that guarantees the implementation of the constitution," he told reporters.
Morales' Movement Toward Socialism, or MAS, party controls the lower house in the natural gas-rich country, but right-wing parties have used their Senate majority to block dozens of government-proposed reforms since Morales took office in 2006.
Lawmakers traded insults during a heated debate and some opposition members called Morales government "totalitarian".
However, a majority eventually voted to approve the general outline of the law. Further debate and another vote to pass the details of the measure were set to continue late Thursday.
Congress still has to vote on how many seats will be reserved for minority indigenous groups in the legislature, whether or not the electoral register will be updated before the poll and if Bolivian expatriates will be allowed to vote.
A new constitution designed to give more power and rights to the country's indigenous majority was approved by more than 60 percent of voters in January.
It calls for Congress to approve an electoral law ratifying December 6 as the date for a general election.
The opposition had rejected the bill because it gives 14 seats to minority indigenous groups which, they say, amounts to handing them to Morales, since he champions indigenous rights.
They also demand a new electoral register saying the current census is unreliable.
Across the landlocked country, hundreds of members of indigenous groups and trade unions had joined the hunger strike in support of Morales, local media reported.
Bolivia, the poorest country in South America, has been racked by decades of political upheaval. The opposition is split ahead of December's vote, when Morales will stand for re-election and 166 lawmakers will be chosen.
According to a poll published in El Deber newspaper this week, some 54 percent of Bolivians think Morales will be reelected, far ahead of his closest contender former President Carlos Mesa with 6 percent.
Morales, a critic of Washington and an ally of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, won sweeping victories in a recall vote in August and the constitutional referendum in January, showing strong backing for his leftist and pro-indigenous policies.
(Additional reporting by Carlos Quiroga; editing by Mohammad Zargham)