Leftist President Morales highly favored for re-election; brought rare stability to Bolivia

By Frank Bajak, AP
Sunday, December 6, 2009

Morales highly favored for re-election in Bolivia

LA PAZ, Bolivia — President Evo Morales was highly favored to win re-election on Sunday in balloting expected to further spur revolutionary change on behalf of Bolivia’s long-suppressed indigenous majority.

Opponents say they fear Morales will use a consolidation of power not just to eradicate racially based economic inequalities but also to trample human rights and deepen state control of the economy.

Voters also were choosing a new Congress in the balloting, which Organization of American States election observer Horacio Serpa called “happy, completely peaceful” and without serious irregularities.

Morales’ stridently leftist Movement Toward Socialism is hoping for a two-thirds majority in the legislature so it can dictate terms of a law on indigenous territorial self-rule.

A super-majority would also give the 50-year-old incumbent the votes needed to amend the constitution so he could run for a third straight term, though he has been evasive on the issue.

“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 provide some relief — funding the 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, who led opinion polls with about 55 percent support, 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.

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 the eastern lowlands. 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.

Pre-election polls put Morales far out in front of his nearest competitor in a field of nine candidates. Manfred Reyes, a former military officer and state governor associated with the previous discredited ruling class, had 20 percent support. A more centrist opposition candidate, cement magnate Samuel Doria Medina, was running third.

Reyes’ running mate, Leopoldo Fernandez, is in jail, accused of backing a massacre of Morales supporters in 2008 as a state governor. In a news conference from the prison Sunday, he accused Morales of impeding the country’s growth.

“The government has demonstrated that if things aren’t done its way, the country doesn’t advance,” Fernandez said.

Other 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.

“Sooner or later he’ll nationalize the banks and other sectors will end up in the hands of the state,” said Victor Hugo Cardenas, a former vice president and Morales critic whose house was ransacked by a pro-Morales mob earlier this year.

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.

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