David Mercado / Reuters

Socialist stalwart Morales sweeps into 3rd term as Bolivia's president

Former coca grower dedicates victory to Fidel Castro and Hugo Chávez, calls win a 'triumph of the anti-imperialists'

Evo Morales coasted to victory Monday in Bolivia's presidential elections, winning an unprecedented third term as voters rewarded the former coca grower for delivering economic and political stability in what has traditionally been one of South America's most ungovernable nations.

Morales' supporters poured into the streets to celebrate the triumph, but the festive mood was partly dampened by an apparent failure by the ruling Movement Toward Socialism party to retain the two-thirds control of Congress needed to push through a constitutional reform lifting a two-term limit on presidential mandates.

Morales, a native Aymara Indian, received 60 percent of the vote against 25 percent for cement magnate Samuel Doria Medina, the top vote-getter among four challengers in Sunday's election, according to a quick count of voting stations by the polling firm Ipsos for ATB television. Official partial results were expected later in the day.

Doria Medina conceded defeat late Sunday, promising to "keep working to make a better country."

In a victory speech from the balcony of the presidential palace in La Paz, Morales dedicated his victory to Cuba's Fidel Castro and the late Venezuelan president, Hugo Chávez.

"It is a triumph of the anti-colonialists and anti-imperialists," Morales said in a booming voice. "We are going to keep growing and we are going to continue the process of economic liberation."

Morales won eight of Bolivia's nine states, including the former opposition stronghold of Santa Cruz, an agribusiness center in the eastern lowlands where he polled 51 percent, according to Ipsos.

Morales is now on track to become Bolivia's longest-serving leader consecutively in office, eclipsing 19th-century figure Marshal Andres de Santa Cruz, a founder of the republic in power from 1829-1839.

While known internationally for his anti-imperialist and socialist rhetoric, the 55-year-old coca growers' union leader is widely popular at home for a pragmatic economic stewardship that spread Bolivia's natural gas and mineral wealth among the masses.

A boom in commodities prices has increased export revenues nine-fold, and on Morales' watch Bolivia accumulated record international reserves and sold bonds abroad for the first time in nearly a century. Economic growth has averaged 5 percent annually, well above the regional average. A half a million people have put poverty behind them since Bolivia's first indigenous president initially took office in 2006.

Public works projects abound, including a satellite designed to deliver Internet to rural schools, a fertilizer plant and La Paz's gleaming new cable car system. His newest promise: to light up La Paz with nuclear power.

Morales had sought Sunday to improve on his previous best showing — 64 percent in 2009  — and to maintain a two-thirds control of Bolivia's Senate and assembly needed to lift term limits.

He has not said whether he would seek a fourth term, only that he would "respect the constitution."

A court ruled last year that Morales could run for a third term because his first preceded a constitutional rewrite. All seats were up for grabs in the 36-member Senate and 130-member lower house. Results were not immediately available, but exit polls indicate he fell just short of the needed threshold.

Morales' critics say he spent tens of millions in government money on his campaign, giving him an unfair advantage. And press freedom advocates accuse him of gradually silencing critical media by letting government allies buy them out. Morales did not attend the campaign's lone presidential debate, and state TV did not broadcast it.

"There is no functional opposition, left, right or otherwise," said Jim Shultz, executive director of the left-leaning Democracy Center based in Bolivia and San Francisco.

The United States considers Bolivia uncooperative in the war on drugs and has halted trade preferences. Morales expelled the U.S. ambassador and Drug Enforcement Administration in 2008, accusing them of inciting the opposition, and last year he threw out the U.S. Agency for International Development.

The Associated Press

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