Election of judges a key test for Bolivia's Morales

By Carlos Alberto Quiroga

LA PAZ, Oct 13 (Reuters) - Bolivian President Evo Morales faces an important test this weekend when voters elect judges for the first time, the latest reform aimed at giving a bigger say to the country's indigenous majority.

Leftist Morales, Bolivia's first president of Indian descent, has been hurt by weeks of protests over his plans to build a highway through the Amazon, and Sunday's election is seen as a referendum on his presidency.

The candidates running for election to serve as 28 judges on four national courts do not represent political parties.

Morales' rightist rivals, however, have sought to undermine the election by urging voters to spoil their ballots. That means high turnout and few blank votes will be crucial for Morales as he seeks to regain his political footing after the damaging road protests.

Political analyst Jorge Lazarte said Sunday's election could mark "the beginning of the end" for Morales' hopes for a third consecutive term in 2014 if the ballot is perceived to be a failure for the government.

Morales, a fierce critic of U.S. foreign policy who rose into politics as leader of the coca farmers, has hinted at the possibility of running for re-election.

Low turnout and a sense that the opposition's campaign undermined Morales' reform drive could intensify pressure on the president after the road protest debacle and massive protests over a planned fuel price hike late last year.

In a speech at the pre-Colombian ruins of Tiwanaku this week, he said he was confident "a majority of the people will vote, defeating the rightist, neoliberal conspiracy."

He has billed the first direct election of national judges as "the next step in the refounding of Bolivia."

Besides a series of reforms aimed at giving more political power to the country's indigenous people, Morales has also reversed the privatizations of the free-market 1990s by strengthening the state's hand in the economy.

He nationalized the country's vast natural gas resources months after taking office in 2006, steps that proved popular with the country's poor majority.

Voters will choose members of the country's four national courts from a list of 116 candidates. Half the candidates are women and many are indigenous. The opposition rejects them because they were picked by the government-controlled Congress.

Until now, these judges were chosen directly by Congress.

The judicial shake-up is the latest in a series of reforms that Morales says will help reverse five centuries of discrimination against indigenous peoples in Bolivia and domination by a European-descended elite.

Morales managed to push through a new constitution in 2009, a key demand of the rebellious social groups that toppled two governments between 2003 and 2005.

But he has encountered growing resistance over the last year, facing opposition even within his indigenous support base over the fuel price hike and his plan to build a road that cuts through the TIPNIS indigenous territory and national park.

Opponents have urged voters to scuttle the judicial vote to protest the government's handling of anti-road demonstrations.

"A spoiled ballot paper is a vote in favor of the TIPNIS," opposition lawmaker Roy Moroni said last week. "That is the way to reject these undemocratic elections."

(Writing by Helen Popper; Editing by Cynthia Osterman)

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