POLITICS

Evo Morales to become Bolivia's longest serving president after Sunday election, polls say

Evo Morales, the first indigenous president of Bolivia, is so popular that he has secured his re-election in the first round of voting Sunday. According to polls, he is almost certain to win a third consecutive term in office and become the longest serving president ruled the Andean nation.

"This time we will win in the nine departments (regions), we will give a blow to the empire, to neoliberalism, to the traitors and separatists," he said Wednesday in his closing campaign in La Paz.

"I have seen such large crowds during this campaign that I think we can break our [2009] record of 64 percent," he had said in a recent interview with the Associated Press.

The former coca growers' union leader has become such an institution in Bolivia that stadiums, markets, schools, state enterprises and even a village have been named in his honor.

He long ago capitalized on his everyman origins, anti-imperialist rhetoric and his Movement Toward Socialism party's consolidation of control over state institutions. But his staying power may best be credited to the country's accompanying economic and political stability.

Since Morales first took office in 2006, a boom in commodities prices has increased export revenues ninefold, the country has accumulated $15.5 billion in international reserves and economic growth has averaged 5 percent annually, well above the regional average.

Morales has used the windfall to create subsidies for schoolchildren and pensions for the elderly. A half a million people have put poverty behind them.

"I'm voting for Evo. He gets things built, and he's one of us," says Juana Acarapi, a 42-year-old who sells bread and soda out of her home.

Like Evo, Acarapi is a native Aymara from Bolivia's poor, wind-swept plateau. During a recent rally in this city that looks down over La Paz, the capital, she elbowed her way through the crowd to grab the hand of the president.

Morales tries to make everyone at such gatherings feel important. He calls the women "sister," the men "boss." His message is simple, yet in keeping with the cult of personality his image-makers promote: I am one of you.

Polls show the 55-year-old Morales will win re-election with ease. In the latest poll, Morales was favored by 59 percent of voters, some 40 points ahead of the most popular of four challengers, Samuel Doria Medina, a cement and fast-food magnate. The Equipos Mori poll, published Oct. 3 with an error margin of 3 percentage points, showed Morales winning all nine Bolivian states.

His goal Sunday isn't just bettering his previous best — he won 64 percent of the vote in 2009 — but maintaining two-thirds control of Bolivia's Senate and assembly, says Marcelo Silva, a political scientist at La Paz's Universidad Mayor de San Andres.

That would enable Morales to change the constitution so he could be re-elected indefinitely. Currently, only two 5-year terms are allowed. A court ruled last year that Morales' first term was excluded from the limit by a previous constitutional rewrite. Morales has not said whether he would seek a fourth term, only that he would "respect the Constitution."

All seats are up for grabs in the 36-member Senate and 130-member lower house, and opposition parties are expected to make gains, Silva said.

Monuments to Morales' power across Bolivia include a museum in his hometown and the village of Puerto Evo, built to replace a flood-devastated settlement in Pando state. In the center of the capital, crews are building a second presidential palace, a 20-story center complete with a heliport. Morales' public works include the Tupac Katari communications satellite, a fertilizer plant, and La Paz's gleaming new cable car system. His newest promise: To light up La Paz with nuclear power.

"We're going to give a drubbing to the empire, to the traitors, separatists and neoliberals (capitalists)," Morales boomed Wednesday at his final campaign rally.

Morales may talk the talk, but he is no socialist, says Eduardo Gamarra, a political scientist at Florida International University.

"With some variations — in greater state control — Morales has followed the previous economic model," Gamarra said. He has, in the process, alienated environmentalists and many natives by promoting mining and a planned jungle highway through an indigenous reserve. Morales long ago crushed serious opposition, confiscating several large land tracts from magnates in the east, some of whom also fled into exile to avoid facing criminal charges.

Despite Bolivia's economic advancements, it remains one of South America's poorest countries and many economists think it depends too much on natural resources. In the first half of 2014, natural gas and minerals accounted for 82 percent of export revenues.

The underground cocaine economy also gets credit. Peru's former drug czar, Ricardo Soberon, estimates its annual revenues at $2.3 billion, equal to about 7 percent of gross domestic product.

Morales promotes coca's traditional uses and claims zero tolerance for cocaine. But his government's ability to combat crime and corruption has been questioned. Last year, Transparency International's perception index ranked Bolivia as South America's third most corrupt country after Venezuela and Paraguay, and Morales' opponents complain he has spent millions in government money on his campaign, giving him an unfair advantage.

Among his critics is Roman Loayza, a former small farmers' leader who once was a strong Morales supporter.

"I know Evo Morales like the palm of my hand. We fought and lived together for many years and walked in many protest marches," Loayza told reporters. "But, no longer is he the humble leader we knew. Now, he is arrogant, a harsh ruler who enjoys power."

Based on reporting by the Associated Press.

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