Bolivia's Morales wins wide support

BRAVE NEW WORLD: Evo Morales' recent election is ground-breaking both for his margin of victory and because it's the first time an Indian will serve as president

AP , LA PAZ, BOLIVIA

Fri, Dec 23, 2005 - Page 7

With his stunning victory margin in Bolivia's presidential race, Evo Morales can claim more popular support than any president since democracy was restored in the Andean nation two decades ago.

The president-elect, an Aymara Indian who rose to prominence as a coca growing union leader, had 54.3 percent of the vote on Wednesday with 93 percent of polling places tallied, according to official returns. Turnout averaged almost 85 percent, much higher than in previous Bolivian elections, the electoral court said.

His outright majority in the eight-man race means Morales will be the first president since Bolivia returned to democratic rule in 1982 to be directly elected at the ballot box, with no need for congress to choose. He also would the first Indian president the 180-year history of Bolivia, which has an Indian majority.

Nearly 30 Mexican Indian groups on Wednesday sent a letter congratulating Morales, saying his victory was a historic triumph for Indians across the Americas that "lifts the spirits of out people."

The unexpected strength of his victory is one reason why widely held fears of post-electoral chaos have dissipated. Even Fitch Ratings, an international credit rating agency, kept Bolivia's credit rating unchanged Wednesday, saying Morales' government might have a greater degree of legitimacy than its recent predecessors and therefore lead to better governance.

Morales' supporters lack majority control in Bolivia's House and Senate, where many of the seats are still controlled by right-wing parties. But his wide victory should give him leverage with Bolivia's political and business elite as he makes the transition from a leader of street protests to his nation's standard-bearer, analysts say.

"If the opposition parties are seen as not being constructive and blocking everything Morales tries to do that would not be in their own interests," said Michael Shifter, vice president for policy at the Washington-based think tank Inter-American dialogue.

"I think that they initially would have to be pretty cooperative, recognizing that Morales has a very broad and impressive mandate," he said.

The National Electoral Court isn't expected to formally declare Morales the winner until all the votes are counted. But his victory margin has consistently increased as ballots arrive from his strongholds in remote areas of the country.

His conservative rival, Jorge Quiroga, conceded defeat after finishing with just 28.6 percent, and Bolivia's caretaker president is already organizing a transition team in anticipation of Morales' inauguration on Jan. 22.

Morales, 46, who turned to coca growing after tending llamas as a young boy, insists his government will fight drug trafficking while preserving a legal market for coca in Bolivia. People in the Andes chew coca to stave off hunger, make it into tea or use it as medicine.

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