Bolivia's Morales expected to cruise into unprecedented third presidential term

Evo Morales appeared headed to an unprecedented third term in elections Sunday on the strength of the economic and political stability the coca growers' union leader has brought to Bolivia.

While known internationally for his anti-imperialist and socialist rhetoric, Morales is widely popular at home for a pragmatic economic stewardship that spread Bolivia's natural gas and mineral wealth among the masses.

"I voted for Evo Morales because he doesn't forget the elderly," said Maria Virginia Velasquez, a 70-year-old widow. Universal old-age pensions — Velasquez gets $36 a month — are among the benefits instituted by Morales that have boosted his popularity.

A boom in commodities prices increased export revenues nine-fold, the country has accumulated $15.5 billion in international reserves and economic growth has averaged 5 percent annually, well above the regional average.

A half a million people have put poverty behind them since Bolivia's first indigenous president first took office in 2006. Public works projects abound, including a satellite designed to deliver Internet to rural schools, a fertilizer plant and La Paz's gleaming new cable car system. His newest promise: to light up La Paz with nuclear power.

Morales was favored in pre-election polls to defeat by some 40 points the closest of four challengers, cement magnate Samuel Doria Medina, and win all nine Bolivian states.

He sought Sunday to improve on his previous best showing — 64 percent in 2009 — and maintain a two-thirds control of Bolivia's Senate and assembly. That would let him change the constitution, which restricts presidents to two 5-year terms, so he can run again.

Morales, a 55-year-old native Aymara from Bolivia's poor, wind-swept plateau, has not said whether he would seek a fourth term, only that he would "respect the constitution." He did say in a TV interview last week, however, that he didn't believe people over the age of 60 should be president.

A court ruled last year that Morales could run for a third term because his first preceded a constitutional rewrite. All seats are up for grabs in the 36-member Senate and 130-member lower house.

Morales' critics say he has spent tens of millions in government money on his campaign, giving him an unfair advantage. And press freedom advocates accuse him of gradually silencing critical media by helping government allies buy them out, a formula also employed by the ruling socialist heirs in Venezuela of the late Hugo Chavez.

"There are almost no independent media," said Raul Penaranda, vice president of the La Paz Journalists Association. It organized the campaign's lone presidential debate, which Morales didn't attend and state TV didn't broadcast.

Morales has capitalized on his everyman image while his Movement Toward Socialism party's consolidated control over state institutions. He long ago crushed and splintered the opposition, nationalized key utilities and renegotiating natural gas contracts to give the government a bigger share of profits.

His image-makers have built a cult of personality around him. Stadiums, markets, schools, state enterprises and even a village bear Morales' name. In the center of the capital, crews are building a second presidential palace, a 20-story center complete with a heliport.

Yet Morales has alienated environmentalists and many former indigenous allies by promoting mining and a planned jungle highway through an indigenous reserve.

And despite Bolivia's economic advancements, it is still among South America's poorest countries. Nearly one in five Bolivians lives on less than a dollar a day.

Many economists also think it depends too much on natural resources and is especially susceptible to the current easing in commodities demand from China.

Morales' dreams of converting its lithium reserves into battery factories have yet to be realized, as are plans to create a major iron foundry.

In the first half of 2014, natural gas and minerals accounted for 82 percent of export revenues.

The underground cocaine economy also gets credit for the economic boom. 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.

The United States deems Bolivia uncooperative in the war on drugs and has halted trade preferences and cut all counter-narcotics aid. Morales expelled the U.S. ambassador and Drug Enforcement Administration in 2008, accusing them of inciting the opposition.

Last year he threw out the U.S. Agency for International Development.

Morales' ability to combat crime and corruption have, meanwhile, been questioned. A former counterdrug czar is in a U.S. prison for drug trafficking, there have been multiple graft scandals involving state industries and Bolivia's justice system has been tarnished by an extortion scandal.

Ronald Velasquez, a 38-year-old computer specialist, said he voted for Morales because he didn't trust any of the other candidates. He said he trusts Morales but the president "is surrounded by bad associates."

"He has had a lot of problems in his government with corruption and influence-peddling," Velasquez said.

Macario Chambi, a 54-year-old street vendor, said he would not vote for Morales, whose ruling clique he believes is getting rich off the economic bonanza without instituting the type of reforms that will actually create wealth.

"He thinks we're all sheep, that we don't realize that they want to buy us with cheap sweets."

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