December 19, 2005

Bolivia elects first Indian leader, anti-US leftist

By Fiona Ortiz

LA PAZ, Bolivia (Reuters) - Evo Morales, who challenges
U.S. anti-drug policies, was set to become Bolivia's first
Indian president and join Latin America's shift to leftist
leadership after winning an unexpectedly large majority in
Sunday's elections.

Morales' rivals conceded defeat when results tabulated by
local media showed him taking slightly more than 50 percent of
the vote, much higher than predicted.

With 8 percent of the official ballot tallied, Morales led
with 47 percent to 37 percent for Jorge Quiroga, a conservative
former president. The official tabulation will take several
days but based on exit polls the final result is expected to
remain close to 50 percent.

Should Morales capture more than half of the votes he would
avoid facing a congressional vote between the two top
vote-getters as requried by Bolivian law.

"Beginning tomorrow Bolivia's new history really begins, a
history where we will seek equality, justice, equity, peace and
social justice," Morales told hundreds of supporters amid
chants of "Evo President! Evo President!" at his campaign
headquarters in the central city of Cochabamba on Sunday night.

Landlocked Bolivia, South America's poorest and most
unstable country, has seen two presidents in three years
toppled by large-scale demonstrations led by out-of-work
miners, disenfranchised Indians and coca-leaf growers.

The new government will face conflicting demands from
Indian groups who want the constitution rewritten to enshrine
Indian rights and the country's wealthy eastern provinces where
a wealthy elite wants greater power for regional governments.

Morales has pledged to nationalize the natural gas industry
-- Bolivia has South America's second-largest reserves of the
fuel -- tuning into popular disillusionment with free-market
economic policies that many say did little to help the poor.

Morales, a lawmaker who admires Venezuelan President Hugo
Chavez's drive for regional cooperation to counter U.S.
influence, also tapped into frustrations of the Quechua, Aymara
and other Indian groups that are a majority in this Andean

His most fervent support comes from Indians who see one of
their own reversing what most see as more than 500 years of
discrimination under leaders of European heritage, beginning
with slavery in Spanish colonial silver mines.

A high-school dropout who herded llamas as a boy, Morales
has vowed to roll back a U.S.-backed eradication program of
coca, the main ingredient in cocaine but also prized by Indians
for traditional medicinal uses.

Washington considers Morales, who first rose to power as
the leader of the country's coca farmers, an enemy in its
anti-drug fight in Bolivia, the third biggest cocaine producer
after Colombia and Peru.

A Morales presidency will add Bolivia to a regionwide drift
to the left that has seen leftist presidents come to power in
Argentina, Brazil, Uruguay and Venezuela.