A Bolivian senator seized office as the South American country’s interim president on Tuesday in a move aimed at easing tensions but one that could inflame supporters of the exiled former leader Evo Morales.
“This is a constitutional succession originated in the vacancy of the presidency of the state before the definitive absence of president and vice-president,” said Jeanine Áñez of the opposition Democratic Union party, who is deputy head of the senate. She added she would “take all necessary measures to pacify the country”, and would call elections as soon as possible.
Ms Áñez and her supporters defied the needed congressional quorum for the move after a defiant Mr Morales arrived in exile in Mexico with a message of resistance.
Both chambers of congress had failed earlier on Tuesday to gather a quorum to approve Mr Morales’s resignation and elect a new president of the Senate following the resignation of a string of officials in the line of succession — all from the former leader’s socialist MAS party.
“We remain united in the defence of democracy, the rule of law, life and country,” Mr Morales said from Mexico City, where he arrived earlier on Tuesday thanks to the camaraderie of leftist President Andrés Manuel López Obrador.
The lack of presence of MAS lawmakers to elect a new head of the Senate has left a political vacuum in Bolivia which Ms Áñez will now fill. She is set to call for fresh elections within 90 days amid urgent calls from the Organization of American States “to ensure the functioning of institutions and to name new electoral authorities to guarantee a new electoral process”. The OAS and the EU determined there had been serious and widespread irregularities in Bolivia’s October 20 election in which Mr Morales claimed victory, and called for fresh elections.
Earlier in the day, pro-Morales protesters gathered outside the assembly building in central La Paz following days of violent unrest that has left at least seven people dead. Mr Morales accused opposition leaders Carlos Mesa and Luis Fernando Camacho and their followers of coupmongering and burning the houses of his supporters and ransacking his own house in Cochabamba, in central Bolivia. A former member of his government said “us, the dark-skinned, are being chased after like criminals”.
The violence taking place in El Alto, the city adjacent to the administrative capital La Paz, follows three weeks of increasingly violent protests that have been played out across several parts of Bolivia following the contested October 20 election.
Mr Morales’ departure has created a chaotic political limbo that threatens to return to the divisions and volatile history that had prevailed until the rise of the country’s first indigenous leader almost 14 years ago. Support from peasant farmers, trade unions and urban migrants delivered Mr Morales three sweeping presidential victories, allowing him to survive a recall vote on his mandate and change the constitution. But this legitimacy has been shattered by concerns about his lack of respect for democracy.
On Tuesday, countering the argument from Mr Morales that he was forced to resign due to a “coup”, Luis Almagro, OAS secretary-general, said “the ones who gave [us a] coup d’état are those who made fraud and said they won in the first round” of the election, referring to Mr Morales and his government.
Erick Morón, an opposition lawmaker from the Brigada Parlamentaria de Santa Cruz, an opposition hotbed, said the time had come to “review everything”, putting on the table a constitutional assembly once the dust had settled. “We need to refound the Bolivian republic,” he said.
Mr Morales resigned on Sunday, while holed up in his stronghold of the coca-growing region of El Chapare, following pressure from the Catholic church and trade union federation, as well as the defection en masse of rank-and-file police and army units. This was followed by calls for him to resign by the chief of the armed forces, and a string of resignations over the contested election against Mr Mesa.
Opposition lawmakers have told the Financial Times that after the initial common goal of removing Mr Morales, the future looks troublesome. The opposition is led by two figures with clashing styles and personalities in Mr Mesa, a sober historian and former president who was Mr Morales’s closest contender in the election, and Luis Fernando Camacho, the firebrand Christian conservative leader of the civic committee of Santa Cruz, who did not take part in the October election, but has gained prominence.
“The country, long divided along economic and social lines and with a long history of violent instability, is a tinderbox . . . [and] a violent denouement in coming weeks is very likely,” wrote Eileen Gavin, an Latin America analyst with the risk consultancy Verisk Maplecroft.
Latin American governments are deeply divided regarding events in Bolivia — with leftwing governments such as Venezuela and the incoming one in Argentina having denounced a “coup” — reducing the region’s capacity to help stabilise the country.