Bolivians vote amid expectations of Morales landslide

Bolivians voted Sunday in elections widely expected to give President Evo Morales a third term in office, along with a legislative majority needed to push through his leftist reforms.

La Paz: Bolivians voted Sunday in elections widely expected to give President Evo Morales a third term in office, along with a legislative majority needed to push through his leftist reforms.

Six million Bolivians were casting ballots in the presidential and congressional polls, which would likely expose the weakness of a fragmented opposition.

Voting -- which is compulsory -- began on schedule at 8:00 am (1200 GMT) and was to end at 4:00 pm.

Alcohol consumption in public was prohibited 48 hours before and 12 hours after polling. Carrying firearms was also banned during the vote.

Morales, Bolivia`s first indigenous president, has blended leftwing economic policy with nationalist rhetoric and a focus on indigenous rights and the environment -- all while presiding over an economic boom.

The incumbent was estimated to have 59 percent support heading into the election, according to surveys.

That puts him more than 40 points clear of his nearest rivals: business magnate Samuel Doria Medina, with 18 percent, and the conservative former president Jorge Quiroga, with nine percent.

"Bolivians are a democratic people and we expect a massive turnout that will show the country`s unity," Morales said after casting his ballot in Chapare, in the coca-growing region in central Bolivia he hails from.

Posters bearing the slogan "With Evo, we`re doing well" blanketed La Paz on election day, far out-shining the opposition`s propaganda, which was conspicuously absent.

Doria, 55, complained after voting in La Paz that international observers with the Organization of American States had been praising the elections even before polls closed. "That`s not normal," he said.

"I ask all Bolivians to go to vote, don`t wait to the last minute," he said. "What`s at stake is our democracy, our nation."

Alvaro Colom, the former Guatemalan president who heads the OAS delegation, said the observers were impartial.

"The election is unfolding normally, there have been no serious incidents," he told AFP.

Voter Johny Huanco, in line to cast his ballot in the town of Laja, 30 kilometers (20 miles) from La Paz, said polling there was unfolding without incident.

He predicted a "big victory" for Morales`s Movement Toward Socialism (MAS) party.Morales stands to extend his time in office to 14 years, until January 2020, after Bolivia`s Supreme Court ruled last year that his first term was exempt from a new constitution adopted in 2009 that imposed a limit of one re-election for sitting presidents.

"El Evo," as he is often called in Bolivia, looks virtually guaranteed to win in a single round.

MAS was meanwhile on track to win a two-thirds majority in the Senate and possibly in the Chamber of Deputies as well, according to opinion polls.

Morales, who rose to prominence as a union leader fighting for the rights of the country`s coca growers, has brought sweeping changes since taking office in 2006.

His government has: nationalized a broad range of sectors including oil, gas, mining, telecommunications and water; rolled out welfare grants for the elderly, children and expectant mothers; and moved to empower previously marginalized groups, including the 65 percent of the population that is indigenous.

Defying opponents` dire warnings of economic catastrophe, Bolivia has instead seen a boom.

Gross domestic product grew 6.8 percent last year and is forecast to grow more than five percent this year, one of the fastest rates in Latin America.

The economic and political stability are welcome in Bolivia, which has had 160 coups since independence in 1825 and remains one of the region`s poorest countries.

Morales, a member of the Aymara ethnic group who grew up in poverty and never finished school, has aligned himself with Cuba, Venezuela and Iran and has an antagonistic relationship with the United States.

In 2008, he kicked the US Drug Enforcement Agency out of the country, along with the American ambassador, accusing them of conspiring against his government.

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