Evo Morales assured in his victory in Bolivia presidential vote

Socialist presidential candidate Evo Morales, who has promised to become Washington's "nightmare," said his victory was assured in Sunday's elections after two independent exit polls showed him with a commanding lead. Morales' supporters erupted in celebration after nationally televised exit polls showed their candidate with a decisive lead over former President Jorge "Tuto" Quiroga, who was backed by Bolivia's business elite, and Morales declared the election a victory, one that will fortify Latin America's shift to the left in recent years.

Morales addressed a crowd of cheering supporters in Cochabamba declaring a "great triumph" and suggesting he expected to be declared president in short order, whether outright or by Congress next month. An Aymara Indian who would be Bolivia's first indigenous president, Morales campaigned on exercising more state control over South America's second-largest natural gas reserves and ending U.S.-backed coca eradication efforts.

Quiroga, who had vowed to get tough on coca and keep Bolivia on its free-market track, conceded Sunday night when he congratulated Morales by name along with his leftist Movement Toward Socialism, known by the Spanish acronym MAS.

"I publicly and openly congratulate Don Evo Morales ... for his electoral result," Quiroga said tersely. Under Bolivia's election laws, Congress chooses the next president in mid-January if no candidate receives the simple majority needed to win outright.

Morales was leading with 45 percent to Quiroga's 33 percent in an Equipos Mori poll. A second poll by the private Ipsos Captura organization showed Morales with a slightly narrower lead of 44.5 percent to Quiroga's 34.3 percent. Minor candidates were getting the rest. Most official results from the National Electoral Court weren't expected until Monday or later.

"Evo! Evo!" his supporters chanted in this coca-growing region of Cochabamba where Morales built his "Movement Toward Socialism." In the capital of La Paz, caravans of honking cars paraded down avenues, their passengers shouting "Evo Presidente!" "Happily, we're in another time of change, the third millennium of the people, and not of the empire," said Morales, alluding to the U.S. government. "We're going to resolve social and economic problems that are blocking the development of Bolivians."

Earlier, Morales went to his family's single-story home off a dirt road in Cochabamba, a city near his coca-growing power base, and prayed before a photograph of his deceased father, a miner who had raised him in poverty.

Wearing casual jeans and sandals, he joked with a small group of old friends, watched fireworks light the night sky and took a congratulatory call from Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, another South American leader who often speaks out against U.S. policies, as well as Argentine President Nestor Kirchner and soccer star Diego Maradona.

Waving a coca branch before he voted earlier Sunday at a village school, Morales compared his movement to those to those of Indian leaders who fought Spanish conquerers, as well as to independence hero Simon Bolivar and socialist icon Ernesto "Che" Guevara.

"I am the candidate of those despised in Bolivian history, the candidate of the most disdained, discriminated against," he said. But unlike Bolivar and Guevara, he said he would "work democratically to change things, based on elections and on the conscience of the people." "In this millennium, it's not a matter of raising arms to defeat capitalism, so inhumane and savage," he said.

Even with his wider-than-expected margin on Sunday, Morales, 46, will need to build coalitions in Congress, which could prove a moderating influence on the candidate who has vowed to be "Washington's nightmare." And Morales moderated his tone as election day approached, reassuring the business community that he will protect property rights and fight drug trafficking.

All was not somber for Quiroga, as his campaign predicted he would pick up enough seats to control the Senate and hoped to gain strength in the House. Bolivians also were deciding their vice president, all 27 Senate seats, 130 House seats and all nine governorships.

"I congratulate the candidates of MAS," Quiroga said. "They undertook a good electoral campaign and now is the moment to set aside our differences and look to the future with peace, tranquility and harmony among all Bolivians."

In the five presidential elections since 1985, congress has passed over the first place candidate twice. Parties usually bargain to get the votes needed to win. Centrist third-place candidate Samuel Doria Medina said he would support the first-place candidate if he wins by at least five percentage points, reports the AP. I.L.

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