Bolivia's Morales wins easy re-election
Frank Bajak, Associated Press Writer – 6 mins ago
LA PAZ, Bolivia – President Evo Morales easily won re-election Sunday, according to unofficial results, getting an overwhelming mandate for further revolutionary change on behalf of Bolivia's long-suppressed indigenous majority.
Opponents say they fear the one-time leader of the coca-growers union will use his consolidated power not just to continue battling racially based inequalities but also to trample human rights and deepen state influence over the economy.
An unofficial count of 91 percent of the vote by the Equipos-Mori polling firm said Bolivia's first indigenous president won five more years in office with 63 percent of the ballots — 36 points ahead of his closest challenger in a field of nine.
Jubilant supporters waving Bolivian flags jumped up and down in La Paz's central Murillo square an hour after polls closed chanting "Evo! Evo!" Manfred Reyes, a center-right former state governor and military officer, conceded soon after. He won 27 percent of the vote, according to Equipos-Mori.
The results signaled an opposition in disarray.
"Evo Morales has a mandate unlike any other president in the hemisphere, including Barack Obama," said analyst Jim Shultz of the nonprofit Democracy Center in Cochabamba. "This is the fifth national election in four years and his margin of victory has only increased each and every time."
Reyes narrowly led in the opposition bastion of Santa Cruz state in the eastern lowlands with 50 percent, compared to 43 percent for Morales.
The three political parties that dominated Bolivian politics for decades have now been all but erased. The last survivor was the National Union. Its presidential candidate, Samuel Doria Medina, a centrist cement magnate, got just 6 percent of the vote, according to the quick count.
Voters also chose a new Congress, and the quick count 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 fell just short in the lower house. 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.
Still, with his majorities in both houses, Morales will have the power to expand on the radical changes he already has made, such as indigenous autonomy and land reform.
International observers called the voting peaceful and without serious incident.
Nearly six of 10 Bolivians live in poverty and Morales gained immense support using increased profits from Bolivia's natural gas industry to but a dent in it, funding highly popular subsidies for schoolchildren and the elderly as well as one-time payments for new mothers.
"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."
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.
Morales' victory extends 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.
It comes under a new constitution ratified by voters in January that "refounded" 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 voted 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 he is leading Bolivia down the same totalitarian socialist path as Venezuela's Hugo Chavez, 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 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 Saturday, Morales claimed Bolivia is confiscating more cocaine now than it did when the DEA was active in the country. U.N. figures show 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.