Morales looks past election day

As Bolivians went to the polls Sunday, front-runner Evo Morales appeared confident of victory.

The man expected to win Bolivia's elections came home to a hero's welcome in his jungle valley hometown Sunday. Women in petticoat skirts and bowler hats lined the cobbled streets throwing coca leaves and confetti, men set off homemade fireworks, and Evo Morales voted at a green schoolhouse here.

"He was the smartest of us all. He has seen more of the world than us, and now, he will be our leader," said Cleto Rodriguez, a coca farmer and old friend of Mr. Morales.

Morales was expected to come out the winner in Sunday's election, in a close contest with conservative former president Jorge "Tuto" Quiroga, who has vowed to get tough on coca and keep Bolivia on its free-market track.

But, neither candidate here is expected to win a majority of the vote with five other candidates on the ballot. Without a majority, the newly elected congress would choose the president between the top two vote-winners in mid-January. The congress is often pressured, but is not required, to choose the person who received the most votes.

Morales, an Aymara Indian street activist, has promised to decriminalize coca and renegotiate longstanding natural-gas deals with foreign companies working here. He would be the first Indian president in Bolivia, a country where Aymara and Quechua Indians make up a majority of the population of 8.5 million.

A festival-like atmosphere prevailed at one polling station in the sprawling city of El Alto that overlooks the capital of La Paz. Parents brought their children with them to the polls, and, despite the fact that it was still morning, ice cream vendors did a brisk business circulating through the crowd.

Throughout El Alto and the rest of the country, normally busy roads were left free for pedestrians. Starting 72 hous before the vote, laws here banned nearly all vehicles from the roads as well as all alcohol sales.

The national electoral court has said it could be several days before the final results are certified. But the night before the vote, Morales was looking beyond election day.

"Of course there will be calm after the vote," promises Morales, in response to concerns that his supporters will take to the streets if they feel the election does not go their way.

"The national airline might go on strike for all I know," he jokes, speaking to the traveling press at a festive barbeque Saturday night, "...but that would be the only reason for the airport to shut down."

In June last year, massive strikes organized by Morales's political party Movement Toward Socialism (MAS) shut down the city, including the airport, for days.

At the barbeque, wearing a "Morales 10" shirt and sweating profusely after a pre-dinner game of squash, the candidate turns more serious: "Yes, of course," he tells the Monitor, mopping his face, "there can be dialogue between Washington and myself. It will be complicated, because we have different world views, but the door is open."

Asked if he is considering traveling to the US for an official visit if elected president, he admits that he has not been invited.

His first trip if he is elected, he says, will be to visit former South African President Nelson Mandela in Johannesburg. Next on his agenda: China and Spain. "Harvard University has invited me to speak," he notes, "... but no one in Washington has expressed any interest yet."

Asked if he had immediate plans to visit his friend, Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, he says no, but makes it clear he admires the man. "You can't compare me to [Cuban revolutionary] Che or Chavez," he says, "... because I am not on their level. I am just beginning the struggle ... but I admire and aspire to learn from them."

But Morales has a warning for Bush: "That Chavez!" he chuckles, "... giving out cheap fuel in the Massachusetts! Watch, he will be more popular than Bush in the US soon!" he says, and raises the final glass of the evening. "Of that, I am sure."

Seated at a long table heaped high with coca leaves and surrounded by locals chewing the stimulant, Morales gave his last press conference Sunday, stressing that the US needs to work with whatever government is elected here.

"If the US wants diplomatic relations, they have to be on an equal basis. The relationship cannot be one of subservience," said Morales before he left the Chapare region to fly back to La Paz Sunday.

Bill Faries contributed to this report from El Alto, Bolivia.

Ms. Harman is the Latin America correspondent for the Monitor and USA Today.

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