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May 2, 2006 3:00 am

Nationalisation fuels fears over Morales’ power

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One hundred days after Evo Morales came to power, Bolivia is embarking on a fresh electoral cycle with an increasingly authoritarian president.

Monday's forced nationalisation of the country's oil and gas fields has fuelled fears about Mr Morales' attempts to centralise power through the election of an assembly to rewrite Bolivia's constitution and his close ties to Hugo Chávez, Venezuela's president.

Tuesday marks the official start of campaigning in the election of the assembly, which has been touted as a way to improve the participation of the indigenous majority in public decision-making. But critics see it as bid by the ruling Movement to Socialism (MAS) to tighten its grip on power.

"The constituent assembly is not so much a forum to strike a 'social pact' as a way for the administration to impose its hegemony," says Carlos Toranzo, a political analyst in La Paz.

There is also growing concern about the influence of Mr Chávez over Mr Morales. Mr Chávez, a strident critic of the US, convoked his own constituent assembly in 1999 to shore up his power and weaken Congress.

Washington is thought to be as worried about what it perceives as the Morales administration's weak commitment to democracy and close relations with Venezuela as it is about Bolivia's slowing pace of coca eradication.

In a country where two presidents have been toppled by street protests in the past three years, Mr Morales, Bolivia's first elected indigenous president, enjoys an approval rating of 80 per cent, according to Apoyo, a local pollster. Elected with 54 per cent of the vote, his popularity has been enhanced by a programme of cutting public salaries and an uncompromising intolerance of the merest sniff of corruption.

With a majority in Congress, Mr Morales has been able to avoid backroom deals with the opposition. He has declared war on the judiciary, accusing it of opposing his anti-corruption drive. The judges in turn have said Mr Morales was implementing "a systematic campaign to discredit the judicial branch that attacks democratic institutions and damages the fundamental principles of the rule of law".

Four Supreme Court justices have stepped down since he took office, which will enable Mr Morales to replace them with sympathisers.

"Evo doesn't accept the idea of 'checks and balances'," says Mr Toranzo. "The division of powers doesn't exist for this government."

At the weekend, the Roman Catholic church became the latest institution to criticise the Morales government, attacking its "use of the force, pressure and lack of respect for human rights".

The highly personal nature of the administration has exposed Mr Morales' tendency to shoot first and ask questions later. When a bomb in La Paz killed two people last month, he promptly accused the US. The bomber was later found to be mentally ill. Last week, Mr Morales expelled EBX, a Brazilian steelmaker, for allegedly breaking environmental rules, without giving the company a chance to respond.

The government has attempted to design the elections to ensure it has control, and Mr Morales has alienated part of his indigenous support base by tightly controlling the lists of MAS candidates for the assembly.

Martín Condori of Conamaq, one of the biggest indigenous organisations, says this exclusion was "one of the president's worst errors. The government needs to take us into account."

If Mr Morales is starting to provoke grumblings among his base, he has a very good friend in Caracas. Mr Chávez has supplied assistance to Bolivia's drive to stamp out illiteracy and pays the wages of hundreds of Cuban doctors who have been sent to work there.

Last weekend, Mr Morales repaid that loyalty by joining Mr Chávez and Fidel Castro, the Cuban leader, in a "people's trade bloc" under which Venezuela will sell cheap petrol and give $130m (£71m) of aid to Bolivia, and Cuba and Venezuela will buy Bolivia's entire soyabean crop.

The danger for some observers is that Mr Morales will increasingly come to resemble his Venezuelan counterpart. "You couldn't call this a democratic regime," says Mr Toranzo.

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