MSNBC/AP: Morales claims victory in Bolivia’s vote — Socialist coca farmer will become nation’s first indigenous president

LA PAZ, Bolivia – Bolivia’s socialist presidential candidate Evo Morales, who has promised to become Washington’s “nightmare,” said his victory was assured in Sunday’s elections after two independent exit polls showed him with an unexpectedly strong lead.

If the projected margin holds, Morales, a coca farmer who has said he will end a U.S.-backed anti-drug campaign aimed at eradicating the crop used to make cocaine, will likely be declared president in January over his conservative opponent.

“If (the U.S.) wants relations, welcome,” Morales said after voting, holding a news conference where piles of coca leaves were spread atop a Bolivian flag. “But no to a relationship of submission.”

. . . Morales, 46, has promised to reverse years of sometimes violent U.S.-backed efforts to eradicate coca fields. Bolivia is the world’s third-largest grower of coca, a plant that has traditional, legal uses among the country’s Indians but also is used to make cocaine.

The Aymara Indian street activist on Sunday also referred to his status as a symbol for many of Bolivia’s long-downtrodden Indians, a majority in this country of 8.5 million people.

“I am the candidate of those despised in Bolivian history, the candidate of the most disdained, discriminated against,” he said after working through a crowd of admirers — some of whom rushed forward to kiss him — before voting at a decrepit basketball court in the village school.

“Evo! Evo!” his supporters chanted in this coca-growing region of Cochabamba. In the capital of La Paz, firecrackers boomed and caravans of honking cars paraded down avenues, their passengers shouting “Evo, Presidente!”

Eduardo Gamarra, a Bolivian political expert, said Morales’ bid to become the latest South American leftist to win election was fueled by support that went undetected in pre-election projections. Many Indians blame the country’s free-market policies for enriching white elite at the expense of the majority poor.