LA PAZ, Bolivia – Boliviaâ€™s socialist presidential candidate Evo Morales, who has promised to become Washingtonâ€™s â€œnightmare,â€ said his victory was assured in Sundayâ€™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.
â€œIf (the U.S.) wants relations, welcome,â€ Morales said after voting, holding a news conference where piles of coca leaves were spread atop a Bolivian flag. â€œBut no to a relationship of submission.â€
. . . Morales, 46, has promised to reverse years of sometimes violent U.S.-backed efforts to eradicate coca fields. Bolivia is the worldâ€™s third-largest grower of coca, a plant that has traditional, legal uses among the countryâ€™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 Boliviaâ€™s long-downtrodden Indians, a majority in this country of 8.5 million people.
â€œI am the candidate of those despised in Bolivian history, the candidate of the most disdained, discriminated against,â€ he said after working through a crowd of admirers â€” some of whom rushed forward to kiss him â€” before voting at a decrepit basketball court in the village school.
â€œEvo! Evo!â€ 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 â€œEvo, Presidente!â€
Eduardo Gamarra, a Bolivian political expert, said Moralesâ€™ 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 countryâ€™s free-market policies for enriching white elite at the expense of the majority poor.