Morales joins protest march over new constitution

Bolivian President Evo Morales joined thousands of peasant farmers and leftist activists demanding a referendum on a controversial new constitution, which according to him gives more political power to the country's downtrodden Indian majority.


Bolivian President Evo Morales inaugurated a "peaceful, historic" march Monday to press lawmakers to approve his moves to rewrite his country's constitution along socialist lines.

The procession by thousands of rural workers and union members backing Morales -- a union leader himself, and Bolivia's first indigenous leader -- started in the southern town of Caracollo and was to make its way 200 kilometers (120 miles) to the capital La Paz over this week.

Morales told the crowd the march was "for national unity."

But he has been challenged in recent months by rebel governors opposed to his push to redistribute land and revenues from big gas fields to benefit Bolivia's indigenous majority. The governors are demanding autonomy in the lowland eastern half of the country.

Violence broke out last month between pro- and anti-government groups, leaving at least 18 people dead and raising fears of a civil war.

Morales is seeking to have his measures enshrined in a constitution he wants approved in a February referendum.

He originally called the plebiscite by decree for December, but the country's constitutional court ruled that only congress could schedule the vote.

While the ruling Movement Towards Socialism (MAS) party controls the lower house, the senate is dominated by the conservative opposition.

MAS party chief Fidel Surco predicted 10,000 people would take part in the march to demand the congress "says yes to the new constitution."

Morales has also brought forward general elections by a year-and-a-half, to June 2009.

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