Bolivia Approves Oil & Gas Referendum

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Bolivia's congress approved on Monday night (July 5) a bill that establishes the legal foundation for a national hydrocarbons law and gas exports referendum to take place on July 18.

The lower house approved the bill in its original form in early June, but the senate then made some changes that were debated in congress during the past month, a spokesperson for the hydrocarbons ministry told BNamericas.

"This has taken various weeks of hard discussion in congress, but finally yesterday it was all approved," the spokesperson said, adding: "Now we have a legal backing for the referendum." Only two parties in congress - the Nueva Fuerza Republicana (NFR) and the Movimiento Indígena Pachacuti (MIP) - opposed the bill, while the majority of parties in congress supported the bill, the spokesperson said.

The senate's main change to the original bill was the addition of an article that legalizes President Carlos Mesa's decision to convene the referendum through an executive decree, even though congress did not approve the convocation.

"This was necessary to allow the July 18 referendum to go ahead," the spokesperson said. Congress also debated what percentage of the voting public is required to sign a petition in order to call a referendum and whether the bill would apply at the departmental and municipal levels as well as the national level, the spokesperson said.

Congress rejected the original bill presented by the government in February because it was considered unconstitutional. After waiting for two months for congressional approval, President Mesa convened the referendum anyway in April.

The referendum could have taken place without the congressional green light, but approval gives the vote a solid legal foundation.

The new bill adds 10 articles to the original seven proposed by the government and is based on article 4 of the constitution. The document establishes the rules for a binding referendum on three levels - municipal, departmental and national. The law states that the results of the referendum will be immediately binding on the government as long as at least 50% of the electorate votes.

President Mesa promised a referendum on gas exports when he took office in October 2003, after his predecessor Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada fled the country in the face of violent street riots over the issue that left dozens dead.

Some opposition groups and unions have threatened to boycott the referendum, but Mesa's government plans to step up security measures throughout the country on the day of the poll to ensure voters turn out in sufficient numbers.

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