Easy third-term win expected for Bolivia's Morales, with scant opposition

President 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 a country whose commodities' wealth he has spread around.

Bolivia's first indigenous president has become such an institution that stadiums, markets, schools, state enterprises and even a village have been named in his honor.

His anti-imperialist and socialist rhetoric notwithstanding, Morales has been an able steward of Bolivia's natural gas and mineral wealth.

Since Morales first took office in 2006, a boom in commodities prices has 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.

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. His public works include a 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.

The 55-year-old native Aymara from Bolivia's poor, wind-swept plateau 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 centered in the eastern lowlands.

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

Analysts say Morales' goal Sunday is to try to better his previous best showing — 64 percent of the vote in 2009 — and maintain a two-thirds control of Bolivia's Senate and assembly. That would enable Morales to change the constitution so he could be re-elected indefinitely.

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 political analysts expected opposition parties to make gains.

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.

He has, however, alienated environmentalists and many former indigenous allies by promoting mining and a planned jungle highway through an indigenous reserve.

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. Morales' dreams of converting its lithium reserves into battery factories have yet to be realized, as is a plan 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. 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 say he has spent millions in government money on his campaign, giving him an unfair advantage.