Bolivia's Senate approves law for new elections

New ballot is seen as crucial to ending country's worst political upheaval in 16 years

Photo: Reuters A supporter of former Bolivia's President Evo Morales participates in a demonstration in Cochabamba, Bolivia,

Bolivia's Senate approved a bill Saturday that could open the door to new elections in the crisis-hit country, as the caretaker government prepared to meet with protesters to end weeks of unrest. Crucially, it bars candidates who have served in both of the two previous terms from seeking re-election for the same position, which would likely prevent former Bolivian President Evo Morales from contesting the presidency in the new ballot.

The bill, should however pass a second vote now by the lower house. Interim President Jeanine Anez will then need to sign it before it can become law. In addition to that, Congress also needs to agree on a new seven-member electoral court, after members of the previous panel were removed for allegedly manipulating results.

At least 32 people have been killed in violence that erupted after a disputed election on 20 October, with blockades causing severe fuel and food shortages in La Paz and other cities. Among the other things, the proposed bill thus annuls the results of that vote and allows for new elections to be held. Initially, Morales, who had been seeking a fourth term, claimed he won last month's election, but opposition groups said the vote count was rigged.

The Senate vote comes a day after the caretaker government filed a criminal complaint accusing Morales -Bolivia's first indigenous president who served for nearly 14 years - of "sedition and terrorism," after he allegedly called on supporters to maintain blockades. If Morales - who fled to Mexico after resigning on 10 November - were charged and convicted, he would face a maximum penalty of 30 years in jail.

His former top minister Juan Ramon Quintana, whose whereabouts are unknown, is also accused of the same crimes.

Morales, who claims to have been a victim of a coup after losing the support of the security forces, tweeted Friday - several hours before Interior Minister Arturo Murillo referred the case to federal prosecutors - that the investigation was based on "planted evidence and manipulated recordings."

Two children of Morales - Evaliz Morales Alvarado and Alvaro Morales Peredo - left Bolivia on Saturday for Argentina after being given the green light by the interim government, Murillo tweeted.

Right-wing senator Anez, who declared herself caretaker leader last week after Morales quit, on Friday called on anti-government protesters to "let us govern" and lift the road blocks. In a potential breakthrough in the crisis, the government announced late Friday that it would meet with various opposition groups at the presidential palace on Saturday at 2000 GMT.

They hope to strike an agreement to "pacify the country," Public Works Minister Yerko Nunez told reporters.

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