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Morales cruising to re-election as polls close

Text by News Wires

Latest update : 2009-12-06

Bolivian President Evo Morales is expected to win an easy re-election victory this Sunday, allowing him to extend his popular leftist reforms.

AFP - Ballots closed Sunday in Bolivian elections likely to give President Evo Morales a second term with a strengthened mandate to extend his leftist reforms -- and antagonistic relations with the United States.

Officials and observers said polling was carried out in calm. Initial results were due later Sunday.

Voter intention surveys suggested Morales, a 50-year-old former coca farmer who was elected Bolivia's first indigenous president in 2005, would secure a fresh five-year term with more than 50 percent of the ballots.

His closest rival, former governor Manfred Reyes Villa, may garner only around 20 percent, according to the surveys. Morales has threatened to jail Reyes Villa after the election on corruption charges that are soon to be tested on trial.

Bolivia's five million voters were also called on to select a new Congress.

Morales's Movement Towards Socialism party is aiming to sweep the Senate of the conservative opposition that currently dominates it, and secure a two-thirds congressional majority to push through more socialist reforms.

Measures already implemented include limiting the size of landholdings, nationalizing the energy and telecommunications sectors, and empowering the downtrodden indigenous majority that constitutes the bulk of Morales's support.

The economic elite of European descent that controls the more prosperous eastern lowlands of this Andean nation fear they will be threatened by indigenous land take-overs under additional laws Morales plans to pass.

Much of that elite are disgruntled at Morales's policies and bullheaded political style. His close alliance with Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, another populist anti-US leader, has equally raised hackles.

Tensions between the president's supporters and opponents spilled over into deadly violence late last year, though they have subsided somewhat since a January 2009 referendum that knocked Reyes Villa and other "rebel" governors from power.

The referendum also scrapped the one-term limit for presidents in favor of a maximum two-term mandate.

Morales, however, said after voting on Sunday that he interpreted that to mean he was allowed another shot at re-election in 2014 because his first term took place under the old constitution.

"Constitutionally, this is my first election," he said after casting his own ballot in Villa Tunari, a town in the central coca-growing Chapare region where he keeps a private residence.

Although he had previously ruled out standing again after Sunday's election, Morales also stressed that his reforms required decades more of guidance. Despite the strong hint, though, he did not definitively say whether he seek to hold on to power until 2020.

No disruptions to the voting process were reported.

"Turnout has been orderly and voting was calm," the head of one voting station in a La Paz school, Maria Vallejos, told AFP.

"There was an atmosphere of calm and peace," agreed the joint chief of a team of 120 EU observers, Jose Antonio de Gabriel.

If, as expected, Morales tightens his grip on power, the United States will have to put up with the Bolivian president's anti-US stance for some time to come.

Last year, the US ambassador was ordered out of the country by Morales, who accused him of trying to destabilize his government.

And on Saturday, Morales boasted that since also throwing out the US Drug Enforcement Administration last year, Bolivia's fight against drug trafficking was stronger. He said 20 tons of cocaine shipments were seized so far this year.

The president also accused the US-based television news network CNN of spreading "lies" and aligning itself with his opposition because it interviewed a Bolivian political analyst critical of him.

Date created : 2009-12-05