Exit polls show leftist Morales earning plurality in Bolivia

Newly elected Congress likely to decide among the top two candidates for president


LA PAZ, Bolivia -- Citizens of this deeply divided Andean nation went to the polls yesterday in a bitter election featuring a leftist presidential hopeful who has vowed to torpedo U.S. anti-drug efforts here and be a "nightmare" for Washington.

Unofficial results from several exit polls indicated that Evo Morales, the leftist, had garnered as much as 45 percent of the vote, well ahead of his principal challenger, former President Jorge "Tuto" Quiroga, who the polls suggested had garnered about a third of the vote. The rest of the vote was divided among other candidates.

The exit poll numbers prompted chants of "Evo presidente!" from excited volunteers in Morales' campaign headquarters in La Paz and Cochabamba.

But, even if final results in the coming days mirror the exit polls, Morales would still fall short of an absolute majority, and the race would be thrown to a newly elected Congress to decide next month among the top two finishers. Quiroga's alliance could theoretically win a majority of seats in Congress, where Bolivia's system of proportional representation could work in his favor.

Analysts said a margin of 10 percentage points or more for Morales in the popular vote would mean Congress might risk large street protests if lawmakers denied him the presidency.

"I am the candidate of those despised in Bolivian history," Morales told reporters as he voted in a village school in the subtropical Chapare region, a center of cultivation of the coca leaf, the raw material in cocaine.

Pre-election surveys had indicated that neither Morales, 46, nor Quiroga, a 45-year-old U.S.-educated advocate of market liberalization and coca-eradication efforts, would garner the absolute majority needed to win the presidency.

There were scattered reports from around the country, especially in the province of Cochabamba, a Morales stronghold, that many voters could not cast ballots because their names did not appear on the voting registers. It was unclear how such problems would play out as the results began to be counted.

Morales and Quiroga offer a stark contrast in styles, backgrounds and policies. Morales appeals for the most part to the poor and working classes, polls show, while Quiroga is favored among middle-class and wealthy professionals who fear a Morales presidency could lead to more instability and chase away foreign investors.

An Aymara Indian, Morales would be the first Indian elected president in this polarized, impoverished nation of 9 million, where convulsive social protests have ousted two presidents since 2003. Many here echo his complaint that U.S.-backed economic policies have done little to enhance prosperity in a nation where an estimated six out of every 10 residents live in poverty.

"More than anything else, people are voting against the longtime status quo," said Milton Sanchez, 28, who cast his vote for Morales here in the capital. "It's a vote of rejection."

Morales, who rose to prominence as a leader of the cocaleros, as the coca-growers are known, has pledged to decriminalize production of coca.

Morales has aligned himself with Cuban President Fidel Castro and Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, the two top U.S. antagonists in Latin America.

Patrick J. McDonnell writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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