ANALYSIS-Bolivia's Morales eyes deeper reforms after vote
November 28, 2009 - Reuters

By Eduardo Garcia

LA PAZ, Nov 27 (Reuters) - Bolivian President Evo Morales looks set to win re-election easily on Dec. 6, allowing him to deepen leftist economic reforms as a fractured opposition struggles to dent his popularity.

Opinion polls show Morales with more than 50 percent support and a 30-point lead, suggesting he will cruise to a second term in the election and likely gain control of Congress in the Andean country, the poorest in South America.

Morales, Bolivia's first indigenous president and a close ally of Venezuela's fiery socialist leader Hugo Chavez, says he needs more time to redistribute profits from the key natural gas industry among the poor.

"I think I can achieve a huge triumph on Dec. 6, not a triumph for Evo Morales ... but for you, brothers and sisters," the former coca farmer said at a campaign rally earlier this month, using the kind of simple language that has cemented his popularity among Bolivia's Indian majority.

Months after taking office in 2006, Morales rattled foreign investors by nationalizing the country's vast natural gas fields -- a key source of energy for neighboring Brazil and by far Bolivia's biggest export earner.

Morales, who hails from a poor Aymara Indian family and shuns suits and ties, also took over mining and telecommunication firms, pleasing his Indian support base but irking many middle-class Bolivians, who say he is too radical.

His priorities for a second term look set to include launching state cement, dairy, drug and paper companies, investing in natural gas processing plants and hydroelectric dams and developing Bolivia's huge lithium reserves.

"Winning with a huge majority ... is a great opportunity but there are lots of challenges that remain and lots of challenges that will arrive," said Kathryn Ledebur, head of the Bolivia-based Andean Information Network think-tank.

Among the challenges that Morales could face are corruption in state-controlled companies, demands from supporters eager for a larger share of state revenues and protests in regions governed by the opposition where Morales is unpopular.

Polls suggest opposition candidates are likely to suffer a crushing defeat, partly because they failed to rally behind a single presidential candidate, political analysts say.

The leading opposition contender, former army captain Manfred Reyes Villa, is trying to win support from the middle class by accusing Morales of having totalitarian ambitions.

"There's already a sort of dictatorship," Reyes Villa told Reuters earlier this month. "So imagine if he had a majority (in Congress) -- that would be the end for democracy."

During his first term, Morales issued dozens of presidential decrees to bypass Congress, because he said the opposition-controlled Senate was systematically blocking government-proposed bills.

A new constitution approved in January calls for Congress to pass a set of key electoral and judicial laws within the first half of 2010.

If Morales' Movement Toward Socialism party wins a solid majority in Congress, it would be able to set the tone of these laws to help him cement his power. If it wins two-thirds of the seats, it would be able to pick candidates for high courts.

Such a possibility worries wealthy Bolivians and the business elite based in the eastern city of Santa Cruz, the country's economic powerhouse and an opposition stronghold.

"There is certainly middle-class concern about a consolidation of power but I don't think it's enough for people to want to turn back," said Jim Shultz, head of the Democracy Center think-tank.

Fierce opposition in provinces such as Santa Cruz plagued Morales' constitutional reform push and he could continue to face a stiff challenge from rightist regional leaders.

At least 10 people were killed last year when anti-government protesters ransacked public buildings and attacked natural gas pipelines in opposition-led regions.

But Morales' foes may have to find new ways to challenge him.

"They tried violence. That was a popular groundswell of protests but it didn't work," Ledebur said. "They have probably realized that violence is not the way."

(Editing by John O'Callaghan)