- The Washington Times - Monday, December 7, 2009

SANTA CRUZ, Bolivia | Bolivian President Evo Morales appeared headed for a decisive election win Sunday, a victory that opponents fear could lock the country into a socialist system modeled on that of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez.

“This election will vindicate the revolutionary process started by my government and the Bolivian people,” Mr. Morales said in his final campaign speech.

His apparent victory has been underpinned by massive support from Andean Indians around the capital, La Paz, where exit polls showed he received more than 70 percent of the vote.

Mr. Morales also benefits from a divided opposition, which split the anti-Morales vote three ways.

His main opponent, right-wing candidate Manfred Reyes Villa, an ex-governor of Cochabamba, won in Bolivia’s main eastern lowland city and business capital, Santa Cruz. But even in some eastern provinces, which have been opposition bastions, Mr. Morales managed to expand his support, according to early returns.

Nationwide, exit polls showed Mr. Morales with 62 percent of the vote compared with 23 percent for Mr. Reyes.

Some analysts attribute Mr. Morales’ expanding appeal to a favorable economic performance in recent years by Bolivia, one of Latin America’s poorest countries.

“Bolivia’s GDP growth has averaged 4.9% since the current administration took over in 2006,” says a report released last week by the Washington-based Center for Economic and Policy Research.

“This would not have been possible without the government’s regaining control of the country’s natural resources” the study concludes.

Like Venezuela’s Mr. Chavez, Mr. Morales has steadily nationalized parts of Bolivia’s economy, especially its energy resources. The two presidents also share an anti-American outlook and have severed many joint programs with the United States, such as anti-drug efforts.

Economist Elias Seleme, a one-time consultant to Bolivia’s state energy enterprise YPFB, thinks the boom could be short-lived.

“The government spent a lot of money to avoid a financial crisis in this election year. We will be paying for it in years to come,” he said, pointing to worrying indicators such as a sharp drop in natural-gas exports to Bolivia’s main clients, Brazil and Argentina.

Bolivia is importing sizable amounts of energy because of a shortfall in investment and in energy exploration, according to economic analysts.

In exclusive comments to The Washington Times, Mr. Reyes Villa also attributed the economic growth to drugs.

“Narcotrafficking has been maintaining the economy. Money laundering is behind a lot of new construction,” he said.

Mr. Morales has legalized the growth of coca leaves, the main ingredient for cocaine and an important cash crop for peasant farmers, who have formed his core constituency.

Mr. Morales campaigned hard to attract the vote of the middle class in these elections, spending an estimated $50 million, to air 227 television spots per day.

“Political conflicts don’t affect the poor as much as businessmen, the middle class, professionals, because they have the most invested,” he told an audience of businessmen in Santa Cruz. He promised to respect private property.

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