COCHABAMBA, Bolivia – 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.
If the projected margin holds, Morales, a coca farmer who has said he will end a U.S.-backed anti-drug campaign aimed at eradicating the crop used to make cocaine, will likely be declared president in January over his conservative opponent.
"If (the U.S.) wants relations, welcome," Morales said after voting, holding a news conference where piles of coca leaves were spread atop a Bolivian flag. "But no to a relationship of submission."
Raucous celebrations erupted among Morales' supporters after the nationally televised exit polls showed him with a decisive lead over former President Jorge Quiroga, who was backed by Bolivia's business elite. Morales thanked a cheering crowd for what he called his "great triumph," but tempered that by saying he would await official results confirming the outcome.
"I am very content, very emotional about this," he said.
According to projections by the Equipso Mori exit poll, Morales had 45 percent of the vote and Quiroga had 33 percent. A second exit poll by the private Ipsos Captura organization showed Morales with a slightly narrower projected lead of 44.5 percent to 34 percent for Quiroga. Minor candidates were getting the rest.
Neither exit poll released a margin of error or technical data on how the samplings were carried out.
First official results from the National Electoral Court were not expected until at least Monday and more significant results possibly Tuesday, authorities said, citing delays in gathering the official voting acts from more than 20,000 sites around a mountainous country.
Morales counts Cuba's Fidel Castro and Venezuela's Hugo Chavez among his friends, along with leftists in Brazil, Argentina and Uruguay who have gained power at the ballot box this decade. After the exit polls were released, an AP reporter at Morales' home in Cochabamba said he immediately received a phone call from Chavez.
If Morales fails to win more than 50 percent of the popular vote, Bolivia's newly elected congress must decide the presidency — a parliamentary process that would involve some coalition building and likely be a moderating influence on Morales, even with his unexpectedly wide margin.
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 but also is used to make cocaine.
The Aymara Indian street activist on Sunday 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," he 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.
"Evo! Evo!" his supporters chanted in this coca-growing region of Cochabamba. In the capital of La Paz, firecrackers boomed and caravans of honking cars paraded down avenues, their passengers shouting "Evo, Presidente!"
Eduardo Gamarra, a Bolivian political expert, said Morales' bid to become the latest South American leftist to win election was fueled by support that went undetected in pre-election projections. Many Indians blame the country's free-market policies for enriching white elite at the expense of the majority poor.
"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 he would respect the decision of lawmakers and hoped that the congressional process would not lead to the sort of crippling street protests Morales had led in the past.
"I publicly and openly congratulate Don Evo Morales ... for his electoral result," Quiroga said in a brief televised appearance. "Now is the moment to set aside our differences and look to the future with peace, tranquility and harmony among all Bolivians."
Quiroga served as an interim president from 2001 to 2002. He has said he would sell Bolivia's vast natural gas reserves at higher prices and improve infrastructure, education and health care.
In the five presidential elections since 1985, congress has passed over the first place candidate twice. Parties usually bargain to get the votes needed to win — making the support of the centrist third-place candidate, Samuel Doria Medina, crucial. He has said he would support the first-place candidate if he wins by at least 5 percentage points.
Hundreds of international monitors made it one of the mostly closely watched elections in the country's history, and Sunday's voting was conducted under heavy police guard.
The winner starts a five-year term on Jan. 22 as Bolivia's fourth president since August 2002, succeeding caretaker President Eduardo Rodriguez, who was appointed by Congress on June 8, two days after street protests ended the 18-month administration of Carlos Mesa.