By Gram Slattery and Daniel Ramos
LA PAZ (Reuters) – Bolivia’s new interim president pledged on Wednesday to hold new elections as soon as possible and denied a coup had taken place, while from Mexico former leader Evo Morales hinted he could return to the South American nation.
Senate vice-president and conservative Jeanine Anez, 52, had assumed the interim role on Tuesday after Morales fled Bolivia after his 14-year socialist rule ended in violent protests and recriminations.
Morales resigned on Sunday on the back of rising pressure over accusations of vote rigging in last month’s election. But he struck a defiant tone from Mexico where he is seeking asylum.
“If my people ask, we’re ready to go back. We’ll return sooner or later… to pacify Bolivia,” he said at a news conference in Mexico City.
Anez faces an immediate challenge from lawmakers from Morales’ Movement for Socialism (MAS) party, who hold a majority in parliament and have threatened to hold a rival session to nullify her appointment.
On Wednesday, television showed large numbers of police around the central Plaza Murillo. They appeared to prevent MAS lawmaker Adriana Salvatierra, who has resigned as head of the Senate, from entering the government building.
Thousands of Morales supporters marched into La Paz from nearby El Alto, many carrying the colourful flags of regional indigenous groups. Many previously marginalized indigenous groups have seen their power and affluence rise significantly under Morales, a former coca grower who was the country’s first indigenous president.
Anez “does not represent the people, but the big elites, the society that has money but does not represent the poor,” said Ruth Moscoso, selling bread in La Paz.
But others in the city cheered Anez taking over the interim role and hoped it would bring stability after weeks of protests.
“It seems she is going to act in a fair way and will get us out of this mess,” said Jose Clarens on his way to shop at a local market.
At the government palace, Anez said she planned to call elections “in the shortest possible time.”
“I now call for a peaceful and democratic transition, revoking the conditions that had made us into a totalitarian country,” she said.
MORALESPROMISES TO KEEPFIGHTING
In 48 hours of turmoil at the weekend, mutinous police climbed on stations and joined marches, allies deserted Morales, the Washington-based Organization of American States (OAS) declared his re-election was manipulated, and the military urged him to quit.
The crisis has divided international reaction, with left-wing allies echoing Morales’ allegations of a coup, and others cheering his resignation as good for democracy.
Conservative-led Brazil and Britain congratulated Anez.
“We look forward to working with her and Bolivia’s other civilian authorities as they arrange free and fair elections as soon as possible,” Michael Kozak, U.S. assistant secretary of state for western hemisphere affairs, wrote on Twitter.
Anti-Morales protesters say pressure had built to a point of no-return after increasing evidence of tampering with the October vote, and that he had gone against the will of the people by seeking a fourth term after he lost a 2016 referendum on changing the constitution to allow him to run again.
But Morales promised to keep up the political fight.
He attacked the OAS audit, which had found serious irregularities during the Oct. 20 vote.
“The OAS took a political decision, not a technical or legal one,” Morales said from Mexico City. “The OAS is in the service of the North American empire.”
Bolivia’s largest union threatened a widespread strike unless politicians could restore stability, while a coca farmers’ union official and a lawmaker close to Morales called for protests until he returned to finish his mandate in January.
Anez entered the older ‘Palacio Quemado’ presidential building on Wednesday, which Morales had stopped using, considering it a discredited symbol of past power.
“What a shame revenge continues,” she said in a tweet to one lawmaker who said his house had been attacked by Morales supporters.
(Reporting by Gram Slattery, Daniel Ramos, Miguel Lo Bianco and Monica Machicao in La Paz and Diego Ore in Mexico City; Writing by Adam Jourdan; Editing by Andrew Cawthorne and Rosalba O’Brien)