Evo Morales, Bolivia’s first indigenous president, is expected to win a third term against a fragmented opposition today, with a large Congressional majority to continue pushing through his leftist reforms.
Morales, who has blended leftist economic policy with nationalist rhetoric and a focus on indigenous rights and the environment — all while presiding over an economic boom — is polling at 59 percent heading into the election.
That puts him more than 40 points clear of his nearest rivals, business magnate Samuel Doria Medina with 18 percent, and conservative former Bolivian president Jorge Quiroga with 9 percent.
Morales, 54, stands to extend his time in office to 14 years, until January 2020, after Bolivia’s Supreme Court ruled last year that his first term was exempt from a new constitution adopted in 2009 that imposed a limit of one re-election for sitting presidents.
“El Evo,” as he is often called in Bolivia, looks virtually guaranteed to win in a single round.
To avoid a Dec. 7 runoff, he needs to take more than 50 percent of the vote, or win more than 40 percent and finish at least 10 points clear of his nearest opponent.
His Movement Toward Socialism party (MAS) is on track to win a two-thirds majority in Bolivia’s Senate and possibly in its Chamber of Deputies, as well, according to opinion polls.
Morales, who rose to prominence as a union leader fighting for the rights of the country’s coca growers, has brought sweeping changes since taking office in 2006.
Morales’ administration has nationalized a broad range of industrial sectors including oil, gas, mining, telecommunications and water, rolled out welfare grants for the elderly, children and expecting mothers, and moved to empower previously marginalized groups, including the 65 percent of the population who are indigenous.
Defying opponents’ dire warnings of economic catastrophe, Bolivia has instead seen a boom.
GDP grew 6.8 percent last year and is forecast to grow more than 5 percent this year, one of the fastest rates in Latin America.
The economic and political stability are welcome in Bolivia, which has had 160 coups since independence in 1825 and remains one of the region’s poorest countries.
Morales has also aligned himself with Cuba, Venezuela and Iran and has had an antagonistic relationship with the US over drug policy.
He has shielded coca growers from the US push to eradicate the plant.
Besides being the base ingredient for cocaine, coca leaves are widely chewed in Bolivia and brewed as a tea — uses Morales has vigorously defended as part of the nation’s cultural heritage.
In 2008 he kicked the US Drug Enforcement Agency out of the nation, along with the US ambassador, accusing them of conspiring against his government.
Morales, a member of the Aymara ethnic group, grew up in poverty with no running water or electricity and he never finished school.
Political analyst Carlos Toranzo said poor and indigenous voters first warmed to him because he came from the same background as them.
However, the “Evo” phenomenon has evolved and spread among the nation’s 6 million voters.
“Nine years into his administration, people do not identify with him because he is like them or has the same skin,” Latin American Institute for Social Research coordinator Toranzo said. “There are economic and social reasons. There has been an increase in social inclusion, which people view favorably, and that is why they think they must keep voting for Evo Morales.”
Morales is even polling at more than 50 percent in business hub Santa Cruz, once a bastion of opposition against him.
With such strong poll numbers, he has little use for presidential debates and has answered his opponents’ challenges by saying: “They can go debate their grandmothers.”
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