Bolivia's Morales says will deepen leftist reforms

LA PAZ Mon Dec 7, 2009 6:51pm EST

Bolivian President Evo Morales speaks during a news conference at the presidential palace in La Paz, December 7, 2009. REUTERS/Gaston Brito

Bolivian President Evo Morales speaks during a news conference at the presidential palace in La Paz, December 7, 2009.

Credit: Reuters/Gaston Brito

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LA PAZ (Reuters) - Leftist Bolivian President Evo Morales vowed on Monday to increase state control over the economy and strengthen political power for indigenous groups, a day after exit polls showed he was re-elected in a landslide.

Bolivia's top electoral body has not yet released official results, but exit polls and quick counts showed Morales took at least 63 percent of the vote, more than 35 percentage points ahead of his closest challenger, rightist former Governor Manfred Reyes Villa.

Morales' Movement Toward Socialism party also looked likely to win two-thirds of the seats in both houses of Congress, exit polls showed.

That leaves his divided conservative opposition with little power to oppose his reforms during his five-year second term.

Morales, an Aymara Indian, is Bolivia's first indigenous president and is hugely popular among the Indian majority that also supported a constitutional reform earlier this year to allow him to run for a second consecutive term in South America's poorest country.

"Bolivians have given us an enormous responsibility to deepen this transformation," he said. "Bolivians have punished the people who are traitors of this process."

Critics say Morales, 50, has scared away crucial foreign investment with nationalizations of companies and is not acting on behalf of all Bolivians but primarily for Aymara, Quechua and other indigenous ethnic groups.

His state takeover of the energy industry in 2006 raised taxes on foreign companies in Bolivia including Spain's Repsol and Brazil's Petrobras and brought a windfall that Morales used to fund popular social programs.

"For the first time in Bolivia's ... history, the state is reaching every home," he said. "It's not a solution, but for many families it's a big relief."

Morales has also given Indian communities more authority over investment in natural resources in their territories and his new constitution enshrines traditional religions and practices after centuries of harsh discrimination since the Spanish conquest.

POWER IN CONGRESS

If official vote tallies show the ruling party taking two-thirds of Congress, it could call for referendums to amend the constitution, if it chooses, and will control judicial appointments, reducing the chances the opposition could successfully challenge his policies.

However, analysts say Morales may moderate his rhetoric on the economy in order to attract foreign investment so he can move forward with ambitious state business projects.

He has pledged to launch state-run paper, cement, dairy and drug companies and develop iron and lithium industries to help Bolivia export value-added products instead of raw materials.

Some voters said they supported Morales because of government cash payments to school children, mothers and pensioners, which reached a quarter of Bolivia's 10 million people this year.

"I'm a teacher and I see the kids go to school with hope, because they get breakfast there and the subsidies," said Irene Paz, 36, after voting in El Alto, a poor suburb of La Paz.

"I ask them how they spend the hand-outs and some of them say they buy shoes. Some didn't have shoes before," she said.

Morales' opponents say the programs are aimed at buying political support. They have also criticized his constitutional overhaul earlier this year allowing his re-election, saying he intends to extend his time in power even further.

On Monday, he didn't rule out running again when his new term ends in early 2015.

"I have never thought about (another) re-election," he said. "Under the new constitution, it allows an election and a re-election," suggesting he might view his next term in office as his first.

Bolivia is South America's top exporter of natural gas, but opponents say Morales failed to increase output or develop the industry after he nationalized it, or to stamp out corruption in the state-run energy company.

Those are signs of potential stumbling blocks for his other ambitions.

Morales' leading rival, Reyes Villa, said on Sunday night he was waiting for official results to be released before making any statements about the vote outcome.

Electoral authorities said technical difficulties were delaying the release of the official vote count.

The third-place contender, cement magnate Samuel Doria Medina, conceded defeat as exit polls showed him taking 6 percent of the vote.

Reyes Villa said the fact that Morales lost in three out the country's nine regions, according to quick counts, shows that "polarization in Bolivia continues."

(Additional reporting by Carlos Quiroga, Silene Ramirez and Diego Ore; Editing by Xavier Briand)

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