Socialist Candidate Claims Victory in Bolivian Vote

Voters line up to cast their ballots for president at a polling station outside of La Paz. Two exit polls showed Evo Morales, the Socialist candidate allied with Hugo Chavez and Fidel Castro, with a lead of at least 10 percent.
Voters line up to cast their ballots for president at a polling station outside of La Paz. Two exit polls showed Evo Morales, the Socialist candidate allied with Hugo Chavez and Fidel Castro, with a lead of at least 10 percent. (By Juan Karita -- Associated Press)
By Fiona Smith
Associated Press
Monday, December 19, 2005

COCHABAMBA, Bolivia, Dec. 18 -- Bolivia's Socialist presidential candidate, Evo Morales, who has promised to become Washington's "nightmare," said his victory was assured in Sunday's elections after two independent exit polls showed him with an unexpectedly strong lead.

The wide margin means Morales, a coca farmer, will likely be declared president in January. He has said he will end a U.S.-backed anti-drug campaign aimed at eradicating the country's crop of coca, the primary ingredient in cocaine.

If the United States "wants relations, welcome," Morales said at a news conference at which piles of coca leaves were spread atop a Bolivian flag. "But no to a relationship of submission."

Raucous celebrations erupted among Morales's supporters after nationally televised reports said exit polls showed him with a decisive lead over former president Jorge Quiroga, who was backed by Bolivia's business leaders. Morales thanked supporters for what he called his "great triumph," but tempered that by saying he was awaiting official results confirming the outcome, even as Quiroga conceded defeat.

Morales had 45 percent of the vote and Quiroga had 34 percent, according to an Equipos Mori poll. A second poll by the private Ipsos Captura organization showed Morales with a slightly narrower lead of 44.5 percent to 34 percent for Quiroga. Minor candidates won the remainder of the votes.

If Morales fails to win more than 50 percent of the popular vote, Bolivia's newly elected Congress must decide the presidency, a process that would involve some coalition-building and likely be a moderating influence on Morales, even with his unexpectedly wide margin.

Morales counts Cuba's Fidel Castro and Venezuela's Hugo Chavez among his political allies, along with leftists in Brazil, Argentina and Uruguay.

"Evo! Evo!" his supporters chanted in this coca-growing region. In the capital, La Paz, caravans of honking cars paraded down avenues, their passengers shouting, "Evo Presidente!"

Morales, 46, has promised to reverse years of sometimes-violent U.S.-backed efforts to eradicate coca fields. Bolivia is the world's third-largest grower of coca, a plant that has traditional, legal uses among the country's Indians.

Morales, an Aymara Indian street activist, also referred to his status as a symbol for many of Bolivia's long-downtrodden Indians, a majority in this country of 8.5 million people.

"I am the candidate of those despised in Bolivian history, the candidate of the most disdained, discriminated against," Morales said after working through a crowd of admirers -- some of whom rushed forward to kiss him -- before voting at a decrepit basketball court in the village school.

He compared the struggle of his Movement Toward Socialism party to those of Indian leaders who fought Spanish conquerors, as well as to the independence hero Simon Bolivar and the socialist icon Ernesto "Che" Guevara.

Eduardo Gamarra, a Bolivian political expert, said Morales's bid to become the latest South American leftist to win an election was fueled by support that went undetected in pre-election projections.

"I think there were people who didn't want to say openly that they wanted to vote for Evo Morales," said Gamarra, head of the Latin American studies department at Florida International University.

Quiroga, 45, said earlier Sunday that he would respect the decision of lawmakers and hoped that the congressional process would not lead to the sort of crippling street protests Morales has led in the past.


© 2005 The Washington Post Company