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Bolivia’s President Morales wins election easily: exit poll

Bolivian President Evo Morales holds his ballot before voting in Villa 14 de Septiembre in the Chapare region, Cochabamba

(Reuters) – Evo Morales won a third term as Bolivia’s president on Sunday, one exit poll and a quick count showed, trouncing his opponents on a promise to consolidate socialist reforms that have vastly extended the state’s reach into the natural gas-poweredeconomy.

A Mori exit poll released by Unitel television showed Morales, a prominent member of the bloc of socialist and anti-U.S. leaders in Latin America, winning 61 percent of the vote. His closest rival, Samuel Doria Medina, had 24 percent.

A quick count released by local TV channel ATB showed Morales with 60.5 percent of the vote.

Morales’ folksy appeal and prudent spending of funds from anatural gas bonanza to finance welfare programs, roads and schools have earned the 54-year-old wide support in a country long dogged by coups and political instability.

His winning margin in the exit poll was in line with opinion polls ahead of the vote, which also forecast the former coca grower’s Movement Toward Socialism party would maintain its grip on Congress.

If confirmed when official results come in, Morales will be in a strong position to keep pursuing his brand of “indigenous socialism”, under which he has nationalized key industries such as oil and gas to finance welfare programs and build new roads and schools.

“I voted for Morales,” said Flavia Nunez, a 50-year-old office clerk, in central La Paz. “These other right-wing candidates would take us back in time. I don’t want that.”

Morales’ rivals struggled to match his charisma or offer the Andean country’s 6 million voters a more compelling vision for the economy, often focusing on corruption and drugs.

Doria Medina had hugged and kissed his way across the country in a bid to shake off his businessman image but failed to win broad support in a nation that has generally lapped up Morales’ anti-capitalist, anti-U.S. rhetoric.

Morales campaign billboards ran the slogan “With Evo we’re doing well”. Voters agreed.

A win means Morales, who became Bolivia’s first indigenous leader in 2006, will remain in office until January 2020.

He has delivered economic growth averaging above 5 percent a year, also winning plaudits from Wall Street for running fiscal surpluses.

Under Morales, the number of Bolivians living in extreme poverty has fallen to one in five from more than a third of the population of 10 million in 2006.

Even so, Bolivia remains one of the poorest countries in the Americas.

Morales’ critics accuse him of using his power to control the courts and of violating the constitution which limits a president to two consecutive terms.

Morales has said he will not run again at the next election in late 2019.

An overwhelming win for Morales would underscore the divisions within the opposition and dampen the hopes held by some voters for change.

“This government has had two terms and I don’t like it when a small clique lingers on in power,” economist Miguel Angel Perez, 53, who voted for Quiroga, said before the results were announced.

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