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Bolivian President Evo Morales Wants Fourth Crack at the Job

Bolivian legislators approve a reform that could open the way for Morales to run for a fourth term in 2019, if it is ratified in a referundum in February
September 28, 2015, 8:35pm

Bolivia's President Evo Morales is gearing up to run for a fourth term, which would make him one of Latin America's longest serving leaders.

The Bolivian parliament opened the possibility this weekend by passing a reform, in a marathon 20-hour session, which amended the number of times that a sitting president can be re-elected.  Morales has said he will take advantage of the new rules if they are ratified in a national referendum in February next year.

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"Don't be afraid of the people," Morales told reporters in New York, where he is attending the UN general assembly. "If the people say yes [in the referendum], then I will have to run in the 2019 elections."

The reform increases the number of possible presidential re-elections from one to two. Morales has already been elected three times — in 2006, 2009 and 2014 — but his first term doesn't officially count because he was already president when the current constitution was enacted in 2009.

Opposition leaders immediately rejected the new reform as an attack on democracy.

"This is not a reform, it is a coup," tweeted former presidential candidate and leader of the opposition National Unity Party Samuel Doria Medina.

Jorge Quiroga Ramírez, a former president, said he would be taking his objections to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights.

Morales used some typically fiery rhetoric to hit back from New York, describing his critics as "the same people who, enslaved to capitalist imperialism, sold the country's natural resources to multinational companies."

Related: How Bolivia Got Smart and Convinced Poor Farmers to Grow Less Coca

Bolivia's first indigenous president stands out among the group of left wing Latin American leaders who took power within a so-called "pink wave" of victories across the region that reached its height about a decade ago.

But while most of his peers in countries such as Ecuador, Venezuela, and Argentina now face low approval ratings amid corruption scandals, political conflict and economic troubles, Morales remains extremely popular.

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For all the radical words, Morales has been notably pragmatic and is now milking the benefits of a relatively healthy economy. The political stability of his administrations also stands out in a country long famed for revolutionary movements and military coups, as well as an unsteady start to electoral democracy.

Morales is already on track to overtake a 19th century founder of the republic, who governed the country for ten years, as Bolivia's longest serving president. The country had six elected presidents in the ten years before he took office in 2006.

And now Morales seems set to also capitalize on recent glimmers of hope in Bolivia's long running struggle to obtain a sovereign corridor through Chile to the Pacific Ocean.

The International Court of Justice in The Hague gave the Bolivian cause an important boost last week when it ruled that it has jurisdiction to hear a case, filed by Bolivia in 2013, aimed at forcing Chile to the negotiating table.

The ruling rejected Chilean arguments that a 1904 treaty between the two countries permanently fixed the border and cannot be changed.

Bolivia lost its access to the sea following a 19th century war with Chile, and its demand for some form of this to be returned has been a central element of Bolivian nationalism ever since. It is seen in everything from the school curriculum to the maintenance of a navy, based largely in Lago Titicaca — at 12,500 ft above sea level.

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Though the court's decision did not address the merits of the case itself, the ruling was welcomed in Bolivia as a victory.

Crowds gathered outside the presidential palace in La Paz to celebrate, a smiling President Morales gave an address underlining his "enormous satisfaction," and a long list of former Bolivian presidents hailed the decision.

The former leader of Bolivian coca leaf growers, famed for his refusal to wear suits at official occasions, can also count on the backing of some in the United States.

Ahead of this week's UN general assembly, Morales visited Jimmy Carter at his peanut farm in Plains, Georgia.

Interviewed on Bolivian state TV after the meeting, the former US president said he was "very glad" that the International Court of Justice had ruled in Bolivia's favor, and called on Chile to negotiate "in good faith."

"As you know Evo is a very good friend of mine," Carter also said, before promising that the next time he goes to Bolivia he hopes to visit Morales's coca farm. "I think the changes that have taken place since he became president have been very good."

Related: Border Crisis Escalates in South America as Over 1,000 Colombians Are Deported

Follow Jo Tuckman on Twitter: @jotuckman