Bolivian judges say proposed constitution illegal

LA PAZ Thu Jan 17, 2008 3:04pm GMT

LA PAZ Jan 17 (Reuters) - In a sign of growing opposition to leftist President Evo Morales, senior Bolivian judges said his proposed new constitution is illegal and told him it must be redone if he hopes to avoid a deeper political crisis.

The judges' letter, released late on Wednesday, puts political pressure on a separate court, the constitutional tribunal, which will have the ultimate say on the proposed charter. The judges' statement was the latest sign that Morales lacks broad support and faces growing pressure to negotiate with the opposition.

Morales, the Andean country's first indigenous leader, says the draft constitution will help redress centuries of domination by a European-descended elite. But he has run into powerful resistance from opposition governors in Bolivia's eastern lowlands who complain Morales is being one-sided.

"Reestablish and restart the constitutional reform process ... to ensure social peace and the inclusion of all Bolivians," said the letter by presidents of provincial superior courts, the national agrarian court and the supreme court of justice.

Bolivia, the poorest country in South America, has been at a political impasse since four of the country's nine governors declared their provinces autonomous last month to protest the proposed constitution. Morales' allies passed it in the constitutional assembly late last year during a boycott by opposition delegates.

On Wednesday, anti-Morales groups in Chuquisaca filed thousands of signatures with provincial authorities as part of their drive to become the fifth province to declare autonomy, a move that would tip the balance against Morales.

Governors from the eastern provinces, which are rich in oil and natural gas, fear Morales will cut their share of lucrative revenues from energy exports and enact a land reform program that would whittle away at sprawling soy farms.

The judges said the proposed constitution is "illegal and illegitimate" because allies of Morales approved it without input from the opposition or a two-thirds majority in the assembly.

Legal holes and inconsistencies also riddle the document so it cannot be put to a referendum this year as planned by Morales, the judges said.

"The project is legally stillborn," they said.

Morales and opposition governors have tried to resolve their differences but talks stalled this week on how to revise the constitution to incorporate the provinces' autonomy declarations and divvy up natural gas revenue.

The governors and Morales said this week they would face referendums that could remove them from office if they fail to reach a national accord soon to end the protracted political deadlock. (Reporting by Armando Perez Fernandez and Terry Wade; editing by Fiona Ortiz and Vicki Allen)

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