Bolivian lawmakers on Tuesday rejected a resignation offer by President Carlos Mesa, granting critical support to his embattled government after days of escalating street protests prompted him to submit an offer to step down.
In a unanimous vote, congressmen threw their support behind the president, a day after he tendered his resignation, saying the country was becoming ungovernable amid street protests over his political and economic policies.
Thousands of Mesa’s supporters thronged outside Congress in downtown La Paz, many waving Bolivian flags, cheering the late-night vote on Mesa’s bold gamble that Congress would reject his resignation offer and grant him new political support.
Mesa said he would continue in his post. “I am willing to keep working with Congress,” Mesa told a late-night session of the legislature after the vote. “I want Bolivians to support their president.”
Mesa bargains for concessions
Last-minute wrangling between lawmakers and Mesa delayed a formal vote for hours after the Bolivian leader sought concessions to stay in office, including a halt to street protests by indigenous groups that have paralyzed the country in recent days.
Earlier Tuesday, several leaders representing opposition parties had signaled their support for his presidency.
The showdown marked the latest political drama for Mesa, who has kept a shaky hold on power since taking office in October 2003 after street riots killed 58 people. His predecessor, Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada, was forced to resign amid widespread public anger over a plan to export the country’s natural gas reserves.
Analysts said Mesa’s resignation offer appeared to be a gamble to force critics to rally around his presidency. Mesa is an independent with no political party affiliation, although he enjoys wide popular support.
Mesa briefly left his presidential offices earlier Tuesday to greet supporters, hugging Indian women in bowler hats and brightly colored full-length skirts who had joined the rally in downtown La Paz.
Jaime Paz Zamora, a former president and current congressman who leads the Leftist Revolutionary Movement party, said he had urged fellow lawmakers not to accept Mesa’s resignation and thus avert an institutional crisis.
‘Go back to your office’
“Go back to your office and get back to work,” Paz Zamora declared in a public message to the president.
Since coming to power, Mesa has been plagued by relentless street protests, including calls for greater autonomy by Santa Cruz, Bolivia’s wealthiest province, demands to lower fuel prices and hike taxes levied on foreign oil companies from 15 percent to 50 percent of their sales.
The protests have highlighted the faultlines in the nation of 9 million people, already plagued by tensions between an Indian majority wielding new political clout in La Paz and a traditional white and mixed-race business elite.
Other recent protests also have demanded an immediate end of operations of the French-owned water utility that supplies the capital and the neighboring city of El Alto.
Critics accuse the water company of failing to serve the city’s poorer districts, a highly charged political issue in Bolivia that has echoed throughout South America, where governments have experimented with privatizing state services to attract foreign investment.
Mesa’s decision to submit his resignation to Congress came after Evo Morales, an Indian congressman and leader of the nation’s coca leaf growers, announced plans to intensify a nationwide road blockade unless lawmakers pass a law raising taxes on foreign companies.
Mesa countered that the international community would refuse to accept such a law.
In an interview with The Associated Press, Morales insisted he had not been seeking the president’s ouster but instead wanted a modification of the oil tax law.
“Who is calling for him to resign? Nobody,” Morales said. “But we want that law changed.”
On the street, recent protests appeared to have given way, at least partially, to shows of support for the president.
“We believe he’s doing a good job,” said Antonia de Guiterrez, 27, who marched with several dozen women Tuesday. “Bolivia is being torn in different directions, but he’s holding it together.”