Caretaker President Eduardo Rodriguez began his first day on the job yesterday, pledging to call early elections and take steps to calm opposition protesters who had paralyzed Bolivia for nearly a month with street marches, road blockades and oil-field takeovers.
Bidding to quell the fury of tens of thousands of Indigenous poor, students, miners, coca leaf farmers and labor activists, Rodriguez declared he would work with Congress on key reforms designed to heal growing rifts in South America's poorest nation.
A 49-year-old Supreme Court chief justice, Rodriguez was sworn in late Thursday to replace president Carlos Mesa, whose 19-month-old US-backed free market government crumbled this week in the face of the mounting protests and violence in the streets.
"Bolivia deserves better days," Rodriguez told lawmakers as he automatically became president, after Congress accepted Mesa's resignation and two congressional leaders first in line for the post declined the job. "I'm convinced that one of my tasks will be to begin an electoral process to renew and continue building a democratic system that is more just."
Under Bolivia's Constitution, the new leader is to call elections for president within 180 days. Evo Morales, an anti-US leader of opposition protests, is a likely leading candidate in any election as a House deputy who commands the leftist Movement Toward Socialism party.
Rodriguez was expected to open negotiations with political parties on whether the vice president, legislative and other posts would also be renewed and exactly when.
In La Paz, Bolivia's biggest city with 1 million inhabitants, protesters who had demanded early elections danced in the streets, apparently appeased. And Mesa, whose term was to have ended in August 2007, left the Government Palace wishing his successor luck.
"This decision will work to bring about the pacification of the country," Mesa said. "I wish my successor the greatest success. Now may the country return to normalcy."
Rodriguez said he would seek to strike a pact for a so-called "constitutional assembly" intended to provide poor and indigenous groups more say in national politics, examine demands to nationalize Bolivia's oil industry and study regional aspirations for greater autonomy.
A protest movement that began on May 16 has reverberated from the high mountain plains of La Paz to the tropical lowlands of South America's poorest country. Activists seized several oil field installations, crippling the national economy, while La Paz ran short on gasoline and food as the city was strangled by road blockades and daily marches.
Rodriguez' appointment came after lawmakers cited security concerns in moving their meeting from convulsed La Paz to Sucre, 600km to the southeast.
After clashes in Sucre, Congress rapidly accepted Mesa's resignation on Thursday night. Then both the Senate leader Hormando Vaca Diez and House leader Mario Cossio rejected the job, automatically giving it to the chief justice, who had been third in line for the presidency.
The demonstrators for days demanded Vaca Diez and Cossio not take the job, saying they came from discredited traditional parties that Morales called the "mafia of the oligarchy."
Rodriguez, who studied public administration at Harvard in the US, is a respected justice who plans to return to the judiciary after his term.