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Bolivia poll result 'stunning, historic'

By Simon Hooper for CNN


Latin America
Evo Morales

LA PAZ, Bolivia (CNN) -- A Bolivian newspaper cartoon ahead of the weekend's presidential elections featured Evo Morales arm-wrestling his principal rival, Jorge Quiroga, while simultaneously stretching out a foot to hold Samuel Doria Medina, the third major player in Sunday's vote, at bay. Looking on nervously at Quiroga's shoulder is the figure of Uncle Sam.

The cartoon was supposed to illustrate the weight of forces aligned against Morales -- the leader of MAS, Bolivia's socialist party, and a self-declared U.S. "nightmare" -- in his bid to become the first indigenous president of a South American nation.

Yet by Sunday evening, Morales had grappled all three opponents into submission, claiming a seismic electoral victory that has transformed the political landscape of this Andean nation.

While virtually every pre-election poll had given Morales a comfortable lead, none had correctly predicted the margin of his success suggested by Sunday´s exit polls.

Unofficial results late on Sunday indicated MAS could be close to winning the 51 percent of the vote that would enable Morales to claim the presidency without recourse to coalition building -- and become Bolivia's first leader to be directly elected with an absolute majority since the beginning of the current era of democracy in 1983.

Even falling just short of that mark, Morales' hold on power appears secure after both Quiroga, leader of the social democrat Podemos party, and Doria Medina, tipped as a possible partner in an anti-Morales coalition, conceded defeat Sunday night.

Bolivian political analyst Jim Schultz of the Cochabamba-based Democracy Center said Sunday's results suggested a "stunning, historic win for Morales and MAS. It would certainly represent a greater mandate than any president has had in decades."

Voters for Morales in La Paz on Sunday voiced their support for a candidate who has become a spokesman for the grievances of the impoverished indigenous majority in South America's poorest country.

"This is a new opportunity for the country," said Antonia Tarquino. "I'm going to vote for Evo to give a chance someone different, someone who's not a normal politician. It's time for a change."

Voting in the Chapare region, where he launched his political career as the leader of Bolivia's coca farmers, Morales declared himself the candidate "of those despised ... disdained and discriminated against."

Morales has pledged to renegotiate all of Bolivia's contracts with foreign energy companies over the exploitation of its natural gas reserves -- the second largest in South America -- to establish tighter domestic control of the industry and a greater share of the profits.

He has also promised to convene an assembly to re-write Bolivia's constitution to give more rights to the country's indigenous population and says he will legalize the production of coca, although not cocaine.

Bolivia is also sure to forge closer links with the anti-U.S. axis of Venezuela and Cuba. Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, of whom Morales is an avowed admirer, was reportedly among the first people to call to congratulate him on Sunday.

Problems may still lie ahead for Morales, however. Many of the left wing social groups that have supported his campaign consider him too moderate, and would likely launch a campaign of roadblocks and protests in response to anything short of the full nationalization of the gas industry.

Following a stronger showing by MAS's opponents in congressional and regional elections, Morales may not be able to count on a solid majority in Congress or the support of provincial leaders. In the wealthy Santa Cruz region in the east of the country, where most of Bolivia's gas is located, he may also have to handle demands for greater autonomy.

But after weeks in which many had predicted electoral deadlock and possible civil unrest, many were just happy that Bolivia had voted peacefully and decisively.

With all traffic not on official election duty banned from the roads, shops closed and a weekend prohibition on the sale of alcohol in force, the usually chaotic streets of La Paz were virtually deserted apart from crowded scenes around voting stations, where food sellers set up impromptu kitchens, tables and chairs and children played in the road.

"I just wish the best for my country," said Denis Hernandez, as votes were counted at a polling station in the Mercado Buenos Aires district of La Paz. "This election has shown how much people care about protecting our democracy. If it's Evo Morales then I hope he's going to govern properly. Let's give him an opportunity. The people have asked for change and let's see what he can do."

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