Evo Morales, a leftist former coca leaf farmer vowing to be a "nightmare for the U.S.," was poised to become Bolivia's first indigenous president on Sunday after likely clinching one of the biggest electoral victories in the country's history.
Morales appeared certain to take office in January when his rivals conceded defeat and results tabulated by local media showed him garnering slightly more than 50 percent of the vote, much higher than predicted.
"Beginning tomorrow Bolivia's new history really begins, a history where we will seek equality, justice, equity, peace and social justice," Morales told hundreds of supporters amid chants of "Evo President! Evo President!" at his campaign headquarters in the central city of Cochabamba.
A high-school dropout who herded llamas as a boy, Morales has vowed to nationalize Bolivia's natural gas industry and roll back a U.S.-backed eradication program of coca, a key ingredient used to make cocaine but also prized by Indians for traditional medicinal uses.
Washington considers Morales an enemy in its anti-drug fight in Bolivia, the third biggest cocaine producer after Colombia and Peru. His critics fear a Morales government could jeopardize the country's flow of multi-million dollar economic aid from Washington.
Morales often invoked racial imagery on his campaign, feeding hopes among the impoverished Indian majority that one of its own could help reverse what most saw as more than 500 years of discrimination under leaders of European descent, which began with slavery in Spanish colonial silver mines.
Preliminary official results were expected to be released yesterday. Should Morales gain more than 50 percent of the vote he would avoid having to face a congressional choice between and him and his leading rival, rightist Jorge "Tuto" Quiroga.
Quiroga, a U.S.-educated engineer who served as president from 2001-2002, had vowed to keep Bolivia on a free-market path and implement U.S. coca eradication policies. Most of the country's coca leaves are processed into cocaine.
An end to hatred
"There will be an end to hatred and xenophobia that we have suffered historically," said Morales, who said he was surprised at the historic outcome.
A Morales presidency will add Bolivia to a regionwide drift to the left that has seen leftist presidents come to power in Argentina, Brazil, Uruguay and Venezuela.
Support for Morales, a 46-year-old lawmaker who admires Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, was also lifted by popular disillusionment with Bolivia's free-market economic policies, which many Bolivians say have done little to help many in South America's poorest country.
"Evo is a real man of the people. He's with us," said Estela Martinez, a homemaker celebrating in Cochabamba.
Morales will face tough challenges. Large-scale street demonstrations over economic policies, natural gas resources, greater autonomy for the provinces and Indian rights have toppled two presidents in the last three years.
Results showed Morales' Movement Toward Socialism party was just one seat shy of control in the lower house of Congress - and without control of the Senate.