SUCRE, Bolivia – Bolivia's (search) new president pledged Friday to call early elections and take other steps to calm a country paralyzed by weeks of opposition protests that forced his U.S.-backed predecessor to resign.
Tensions eased somewhat Friday after a key protest leader declared a "truce" while he consulted with other leaders on whether to lift more than 70 highway blockades that have isolated major cities across Bolivia.
Eduardo Rodriguez (search), the Supreme Court chief justice, automatically became president after Congress accepted the resignation of former President Carlos Mesa late Thursday and two congressional leaders first in line for the post declined the job.
Hoping to quell the fury of tens of thousands of indigenous poor, Rodriguez declared he would work with lawmakers on key reforms to heal growing rifts in South America's (search) poorest nation.
"Bolivia deserves better days," Rodriguez, 49, told lawmakers. "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, Rodriguez must call presidential elections within 180 days.
Evo Morales, the anti-U.S. leader of the protests, said early national elections are key to defusing the country's political and social crisis.
Such a vote could also boost the presidential aspirations of the leftist Indian leader, who ran unsuccessfully once before in an attempt to join some seven leftists chosen at the ballot box in recent years across Latin America.
Morales had frequently criticized Mesa's free-market policies as not benefiting impoverished Indians. Among others steps, he demands nationalization of the oil industry to bring more social benefits to the poor and a constitutional assembly to address demands for more power for Indians.
Critics have expressed concern that his reforms might only isolate Bolivia and cause more harm than good in a country where 64 percent of the 8.5 million population live below the poverty line.
On Friday, some businesses reopened in first signs of normal street life returning to La Paz, a still-crippled city of 1 million people that continued to feel the sting of gasoline and food shortages along with a transport strike idling most traffic.
The tension eased after Morales declared a "truce" to weeks of protests and said he would consult other protest leaders on whether to lift highway blockades.
Morales sounded a conciliatory note to Rodriguez even as hard-liners kept up barricades in the poor satellite city of El Alto that adjoins La Paz and was an epicenter of the protests.
"One must understand that he is the new president and he has expressed a commitment to listen to our demands," Morales said. "His election is easing the tensions and we are going to accept a truce."
In Santa Cruz, eastern Bolivia, peasant farmers lifted the first highway blockade even as demonstrators still occupied oilfield installations they seized during the crisis.
Rodriguez, who studied public administration at Harvard in the United States, is a respected judge who plans to return to the judiciary after his term. He met his colleagues at the court headquarters in Sucre on Friday before preparations to head to the Government Palace in La Paz to take up his term.
Rodriguez' appointment came after lawmakers citing security concerns moved their meeting from convulsed La Paz to Sucre, 450 miles to the southeast.
On his agenda, he is expected to quickly open negotiations with political parties on looming elections and key questions whether the vice president, lawmakers and other officials would also be replaced.
He also said he would seek to convene a constitutional assembly to discuss providing poor and indigenous groups more say in national politics, examine demands to nationalize Bolivia's oil industry and study regional aspirations for greater autonomy.
Mesa's 19-month-old U.S.-backed government crumbled in the face of a protest movement that reverberated from the high mountain plains of La Paz to the tropical lowlands of South America.
After clashes in Sucre, Congress rapidly accepted Mesa's resignation 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.
Demonstrators had rejected Vaca Diez and Cossio for the job, saying they came from discredited traditional parties that Morales called the "mafia of the oligarchy."
Had either accepted the position, he would have been allowed by law to serve out Mesa's term until August 2007.
The monthlong unrest registered its first death Thursday when a 52-year-old miner reportedly was killed in a clash at a police checkpoint near Sucre.