Warning of civil war as Bolivia picks president

As the Bolivian parliament prepared to name a new president yesterday, protesters took to the streets to denounce the likely choice while the head of the country's armed forces indicated they could step in to restore order.

The moves were the latest escalation of Bolivia's gravest political crisis in a decade, which has rendered it to all intents ungovernable. It has brought the country - in the words of the outgoing President Carlos Mesa - "to the verge of civil war" and conceivably even geographic disintegration.

Lawmakers last night convened in the tightly guarded historic capital of Sucre for an emergency session of Congress. It was expected to select as head of state the conservative lawyer and landowner Hormando Vaca Diez, the head of the Senate and constitutionally next in line to assume the presidency. Leftwing protesters, however, vow to remove him if he does take office.

The gathering came as La Paz was again paralysed by protests from a host of opposition groups, among them coca leaf farmers, miners, students, labour activists and representatives of Bolivia's majority indigenous Indian population.

As the political parties held meetings before the crucial vote, Admiral Luis Aranda Granados went on national television to urge the country's politicians to "remain within the bounds of the constitution". He rejected Mr Mesa's use of the term civil war, but warned nonetheless that "confrontation between Bolivians" was the greatest risk facing the country. Mr Mesa's departure underscores the crisis facing Latin America's poorest country. He had only been in office since October 2003, when his predecessor, Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada, abandoned power, driven into exile by protest against harsh market reforms that were perceived as a capitulation to International Monetary Fund and US diktat that only widened the gulf between the country's rich and poor.

Now Mr Mesa in turn has decided to step down in an attempt to defuse the protests that have paralysed the capital La Paz, and disrupted oil and gas production, the prime source of Bolivia's income.

The country's problems are an extreme instance of the tensions that have driven eight presidents from office across South America since 2000, and generated a string of electoral victories for left-leaning parties. Even by the region's tormented standards, however, Bolivia's social divisions are acute.

A third of its people live on less than $1 (55p) a day. Poverty is concentrated among the indigenous population, who have next to nothing to show for the sacrifices demanded to put the economy to rights. Most of the country's land and mineral wealth belongs to a colonial elite.

The best prospect for a short-term solution is a deal whereby Mr Vaca Diaz and Mario Cossio Cortez, head of the lower house of Parliament and the next in line for the presidency, both step aside. This would allow Eduardo Rodriguez, President of Bolivia's Supreme Court, to become interim president, with the duty of calling elections to be held by November at the latest. In contrast, Mr Vaca Diez or Mr Cossio Cortez would be entitled to serve out President Mesa's full term, which runs until August 2007.

Polls show 55 per cent of Bolivians back Mr Rodriguez. Only 16 per cent want Mr Vaca Diez, who is aligned with the pro-American business and energy industry elite. The outgoing Mr Mesa has appealed to Mr Vaca Diez to step aside, and "spare the country the possibility of breaking into a thousand pieces". The latter, however, has hinted he would call in the army to retain power - an invitation to which Admiral Aranda Granados' television appearance may have been a veiled reply.

Even elections are unlikely to provide a lasting answer to Bolivia's woes. Since 2003, a myriad of opposition blocs have emerged. Some demand a new constitution; others want economic changes, most notably full nationalisation of the energy industry. It is concentrated in the wealthy eastern province of Santa Cruz (from which Mr Vaca Diez hails). That region is now demanding greater autonomy, in which case political divisions would lead to a physical division of Bolivia as well.

A key role will be played by Evo Morales, a coca farmer and leader of the opposition Movement Towards Socialism party. He calls Mr Vaca Diez part of the "mafia of the oligarchy" and has promised a campaign of civil disobedience if he becomes leader. "The street mobilisations will not halt," he says.

Four years of chaos

* DECEMBER 2001: Farmers reject a government offer of $900 each a year in exchange for the eradication of the coca crop.

* AUGUST 2002: Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada becomes president for second time after polls.

* FEBRUARY 2003: More than 30 killed in violent protests against an income tax. The President withdraws the proposal.

* SEPTEMBER-OCTOBER 2003: 80 killed, hundreds injured in protests over plans to export natural gas via Chile. The President resigns and is succeeded by Carlos Mesa.

* AUGUST 2004: President Mesa signs natural gas export deal with Argentina. Opponents say it pre-empts a referendum and demand President's resignation.

* JANUARY 2005: Rising fuel prices trigger large-scale protests.

* MARCH 2005: President Mesa submits his resignation, saying protests have made it impossible to govern. Congress rejects it.

* MAY-JUNE 2005: Protests continue. President Mesa promises a new constitution and a referendum on autonomy for resource-rich provinces.

* 6 JUNE: As angry street protests continue, President Mesa resigns.

* 8 JUNE: President Mesa warns of "civil war"