Leftist Morales bound for easy re-election in Bolivia, further empowering Indian majority

By Frank Bajak, AP
Sunday, December 6, 2009

Bolivia’s Morales headed to easy re-election

LA PAZ, Bolivia — President Evo Morales appeared headed to easy re-election Sunday with a strong mandate for further revolutionary change on behalf of Bolivia’s long-suppressed indigenous majority.

Opponents say they fear the leftist coca-growers’ union leader will use a consolidation of power not just to continue battling racially based inequalities but also to trample human rights and deepen state control of the economy.

An unofficial quick count of 60 percent of the vote by the Equipos-Mori polling firm said Bolivia’s first indigenous president won 61 percent of the ballots.

Jubilant supporters waving Bolivian flags jumped up and down in La Paz’s central Murillo square an hour after polls closed chanting “Evo! Evo!”

Morales’ closest challenger in a field of nine, center-right former state governor and military officer Manfred Reyes, won 29 percent, according to Equipos-Mori.

The results indicated an opposition in disarray, though Reyes did win the opposition bastion of Santa Cruz state in the eastern lowlands with 55 percent.

Voters also chose a new Congress, and an Equipos-Mori exit poll said Morales’ stridently leftist Movement Toward Socialism easily won a majority in both the 36-seat Senate and 130-member lower house.

The movement secured a two-thirds majority in the Senate but not the lower house, according to that exit poll.

It would need two-thirds control of both chambers to dictate terms of a law on indigenous territorial self-rule, make key appointments unchallenged and amend the constitution to allow Morales to seek a third straight term. The 50-year-old incumbent has been evasive on the latter issue.

The quick count gave presidential candidate Samuel Doria Medina, a centrist cement magnate, 7 percent of the vote.

International observers called the voting peaceful and without serious incident.

“We’ll always back Evo Morales’ government because he takes into account the poor,” said Ramiro Cano, a 40-year-old jeweler and a member of Bolivia’s dominant Aymara ethnic group who voted to give Morales five more years in office.

Cano praised Morales especially for the annual subsidy his two children receive for attending school. “He’s been a great help not just for me but for all families in need.”

Morales has used increased profits from Bolivia’s natural gas industry, which he nationalized in May 2006, to fund highly popular subsidies for schoolchildren and the elderly as well as one-time payments for new mothers. Nearly six of 10 Bolivians live in poverty.

Higher prices for the natural gas and minerals that account for the bulk of Bolivia’s exports helped the country’s economy grow 6 percent last year. The government expects 3 percent growth for 2009.

A victory by Morales would extend the stability he has brought to a country notorious for coups and that had five presidents in the five years preceding his December 2005 election with 54 percent of the vote.

The vote comes under a new constitution ratified by voters in January that allowed Morales to run for a second term and that remade Bolivia as a “plurinational” state, allowing self-rule for the poor South American country’s 36 native peoples.

Twelve of Bolivia’s more than 330 municipalities were voting Sunday on indigenous autonomy, which would allow them to abandon modern political structures in favor of traditional Indian governance based on consensus-building.

Still to be defined by the new Congress are larger territorial autonomies for indigenous groups that could redraw the political map and redefine how government funds are disbursed.

A llama-herder’s son, Morales has championed all of Bolivia’s Indians — at the expense of wealthy ranchers and farmers centered in pro-capitalist Santa Cruz. He has been careful, however, not to alienate too many landholders with a land redistribution program in which confiscation of fallow land has been modest.

Morales detractors say the president is leading Bolivia down the same path as what they call President Hugo Chavez’s totalitarian socialism, while similarly forging dangerous alliances with Iran and Russia.

“He’s created a tyranny,” said Mario Orellana, a 65-year-old retired army colonel who said he voted for Reyes. “He does what he likes. There’s no democracy.”

Besides tightening state control over the gas, oil and mining sectors, Morales has nationalized the main phone company and signaled his intention to take over the electrical power industry.

But many analysts believe Morales will be careful not to alienate the foreign investors he needs to increase raw materials output — they just won’t be able to own the mines and wells. Last month, Bolivia received a pledge of a $1.5 billion investment from the Spanish-Argentine company Repsol for natural gas development.

Relations with the United States, meanwhile, have been rocky.

Morales expelled the U.S. ambassador and the Drug Enforcement Administration in late 2008 for allegedly inciting his political opposition.

In a speech on Saturday, Morales claimed Bolivia is confiscating more cocaine now than it did when the DEA was active in the country. U.N. figures show that cocaine production is up, however, from an estimated 80 metric tons (90 U.S. tons) in 2005 to 103 metric tons (115 U.S. tons) last year.

Associated Press Writers Paola Flores and Carlos Valdez contributed to this report.

will not be displayed