After win, Morales faces tough task

Bolivia's first indigenous president may not be the leftist 'nightmare' critics fear.

Bolivia, often called the "Tibet of the Americas" for its rich majority indigenous culture, will likely have its first indigenous president in 180 years of independence.

Exit polls from Sunday's election show Evo Morales, the former coca grower whose supporters have helped bring about the fall of Bolivia's two previous presidents, winning 51.2 percent of the popular vote, a level significantly higher than pre-election polls predicted and enough to avoid a contentious run-off in Congress.

"I want to say to all the Aymaras, Quechuas, Guaranis, and Chiquitanos: For the first time, we have the presidency!" declared Mr. Morales, referring to Bolivia's main indigenous groups.

Morales's closest competitor, former president and IBM executive Jorge Quiroga, conceded defeat after placing a distant second with 30 percent of the vote, although his party will control nearly half of the Senate's 27 seats and at least three of Bolivia's nine departments. Official results are expected in the coming days, but international observers have indicated the elections appear to have been generally free and fair.

Despite the magnitude of his victory, Morales will have to navigate a difficult path between the expectations of his supporters, the demands of the United States, and a restless business community agitating for greater autonomy from the central government.

"For Evo to govern successfully, he will need to talk on the left, but have his policies located closer to the center," says Carlos Toranzo, a political analyst here.

That would put Morales more in line with center-left leaders like Brazilian President Luiz Inácio da Silva than with anti-US firebrand Hugo Chávez in Venezuela. But pressures within Morales's own party, combined with his strong hand in Congress, may prevent a move to the center.

Morales and his party, the Movement Toward Socialism (MAS), built their victory on a campaign to nationalize the country's gas reserves, rewrite the Constitution, legalize coca-leaf growing, and end 20 years of "neoliberal" economic policies supported by Washington.

Before the election results were in, one senior MAS senator, Roman Loayza, said a Morales government would have just 90 days to nationalize the country's vast natural gas reserves, a move certain to antagonize foreign investors.

Perhaps worried that Morales will want to defer making such a controversial move, Loayza said Sunday night that MAS congressmen "don't have to wait for Evo" to begin making progress on his campaign promises.

In addition, Bolivia is the world's third-largest producer of coca, the main ingredient in cocaine. As the former leader of Bolivia's powerful coca unions, Morales has long called for the complete legalization of the crop throughout Bolivia.

Although Morales says he will continue the war against drug traffickers, US officials believe that any increase in coca production will simply fuel the flow of cocaine out of Bolivia.

As Bolivia's largest foreign-aid donor, the US, which hands out roughly $200 million per year, exerts considerable influence here.

The country benefits from an Andean free-trade agreement with the US that is based on Bolivia's support in the war on drugs. That treaty is set to expire in late 2006 and, if it is not replaced by a new agreement, could cost Bolivia an estimated 100,000 jobs.

In addition, earlier this month, a Bolivian delegation arrived in Washington to lobby for nearly $600 million in additional aid, funding that could be at risk if a Morales government lives up to its anti-US rhetoric.

Finally, Morales will have to figure out how to contend with a new cohort of regional prefects, or governors, who were directly elected for the first time on Sunday.

His biggest challenge will come from probusiness governments in the east and south who hold most of the country's gas reserves. Those regions reject the economic platform of MAS's and support greater foreign investment and integration with the global economy.

As the election results became public in the eastern province of Santa Cruz, governor-elect Rubén Costas called for a summit to discuss greater independence from the central government in La Paz. Mr. Costas has been a key figure behind a proposed national referendum on autonomy scheduled for early July of next year.

Roberto Laserna, a sociologist and political analyst in Cochabamba, summed up the situation facing the country on Sunday evening. "We are entering a new age of uncertainty for Bolivia," he said.

Bolivia at a glance

• Population: 9.1 million

• Area: 424,164 sq. miles

• Ethnic groups: Quechua 30%, mestizo (mixed white and Amerindian ancestry) 30%, Aymara 25%, white 15%

• Major languages: Spanish, Quechua, Aymara, Guarani.

• Main religions: Roman Catholic 95%, Protestant (Evangelical Methodist) 5%

• Main exports: Soyabeans, natural gas, zinc, gold, silver, lead, tin, wood, sugar

• GNI per capita: $960 (World Bank, 2005)

• Percent below poverty line: 64 (2004 est.)

Source: BBC, CIA World Factbook, World Bank.

of stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read  of 5 free articles. Subscribe to continue.

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.