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Bolivia’s interim president faces challenge of organizing elections amid protests

WATCH: Why Bolivia’s president, Evo Morales, resigned

LA PAZ, Bolivia — Bolivia’s new interim president, until now a second-tier lawmaker, faces the challenge of stabilizing the nation and organizing national elections within three months at a time of bloody political disputes that pushed the nation’s first indigenous leader to fly off to self-exile in Mexico after 14 years in power.

Some people took to the streets cheering and waving national flags Tuesday night when Jeanine Anez, who had been second-vice-president of the Senate, claimed the presidency after higher ranking successors to the had post resigned.

But furious supporters of the ousted Evo Morales responded by trying to force their way to the Congress building in La Paz yelling, “She must quit!”

The constitution gives Anez 90 days to organize an election, and her accession was an example of the problems she’ll face.

READ MORE: Bolivia’s former president accepts asylum, flies to Mexico as protests rage on

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Morales’ backers, who hold a two-thirds majority in Congress, boycotted the session she had called to formalize her accession, preventing a quorum. Frustrated in that effort, she took power in any case, with no one to swear her in, noting the constitution did not specifically require congressional approval.

“My commitment is to return democracy and tranquility to the country,” she said. “They can never again steal our vote.”

Morales’ backers called her rise illegitimate, but Bolivia’s constitutional court issued a statement late Tuesday laying out the legal justification for Anez taking the presidency, without mentioning her by name.

While the constitution clearly states that Anez didn’t need a congressional vote to assume the presidency, “The next two months are going to be extraordinarily difficult for President Anez,” said Eduardo Gamarra, a Bolivian political scientist at Florida International University.

Bolivia’s interim president sworn in
Bolivia’s interim president sworn in

She will need to arrange formation of a new electoral court, find a non-partisan staff for the electoral tribunal and get Congress to vote on new election. All of it must be done before Jan. 22, when Morales’ current term and everyone else’s was meant to end. And all of it must be done while Morales’ Movement for Socialism party still controls both houses of Congress.

Morales resigned Sunday following the weeks of violent protests fed by allegations of electoral fraud in the Oct. 20 election, which he claimed to have won.

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Morales had accepted an Organization of American States audit reporting widespread irregularities in the vote count and calling for a new election.

But he stepped aside completely when Gen. Williams Kaliman, the armed forces commander, “suggested” he leave — a move that Morales and his backers branded a coup d’etat and his critics called a popular uprising.

Bolivia’s first indigenous president arrived in Mexico on Tuesday under a grant of asylum and, just 60 years old, vowed to remain active in politics.

Although Anez met with Gen. Kaliman, it was uncertain how much support she could count on from other power centres.

READ MORE: Bolivia thrown into power void as president, top officials resign after weeks of unrest

She immediately tried to set herself apart from Morales. Wearing the presidential sash of office, she greeted supporters at an old presidential palace instead of the modern 26-story presidential office with a heliport that was built by Morales _ and that his foes had criticized as one of his excesses.

She also carried a Bible, which had been banned by Morales from the presidential palaceafter he reformed the constitution and recognized the Andean earth deity Pachamama instead of the Roman Catholic Church.

Morales said on Twitter from Mexico that Anez’s “self-proclamation” was an affront to constitutional government. “Bolivia is suffering an assault on the power of the people,” he wrote.

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Even before Anez acted, thousands of his supporters were in the streets of the capital in peaceful demonstrations clamouring for his return. Military fighter jets flew repeatedly over La Paz in a show of force that infuriated Morales loyalists who were blocked by police and soldiers from marching to the main square.

“We’re not afraid!” shouted demonstrators, who believe Morales’ departure was a coup d’etat and an act of discrimination against Bolivia’s indigenous communities.

Bolivia’s Morales arrives in Mexico after being granted asylum
Bolivia’s Morales arrives in Mexico after being granted asylum

“Evo was like a father to me. We had a voice, we had rights,” said Maria Apasa, who like Morales is a member of the Aymara indigenous group.

Mexican Foreign Secretary Marcelo Ebrard said his country’s diplomats had to scramble to arrange a flight path for the plane because some nations initially closed airspace to it. The plane stopped in Paraguay to refuel instead of Peru, as initially planned.

The one-time llama shepherd from the Bolivian highlands and former coca growers’ union leader helped lift millions out poverty as president, increasing social rights and presiding over stability and high economic growth in South America’s poorest country.

But even many supporters eventually grew weary of his long tenure in power — as well as his insistence in running for a fourth term despite a public referendum that upheld term limits, restrictions thrown out by a top court that critics contend was stacked in his favour.

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