He has rallied Bolivia’s coca farmers against U.S.-led eradication efforts and helped lead anti-government protests by indigenous groups that have unseated two presidents in two years.

But opposition leader Evo Morales is now closing in on the office he has helped force others to flee.

Opinion polls show the leftist congressman holding a narrow lead in an upcoming presidential election. Scheduled for Dec 4, the election could be delayed due to political bickering over Congressional seats.

If elected, Morales would be Bolivia’s first Indian president and add South America’s poorest country to a regional political shift leftward that has seen leftist leaders rise to power in Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Uruguay and Venezuela.

A Morales victory will also likely stir concern in Washington, which has brandished him an enemy in its anti-drug fight in Bolivia, the world’s No. 3 cocaine producer after Colombia and Peru.

“I think people are getting used to the idea that Evo could be our next president,” said insurance company worker Mario Perez in the capital, La Paz, underscoring how Morales’ popularity has slowly spread to middle classes.

The son of a highland peasant and a one-time coca farmer, Morales carries a message that is reverberating with Bolivia’s poor Indian majority: nationalizing the country’s gas industry and challenging Bolivia’s free-market economic policies. He has also invoked racial imagery in urging Bolivians to choose their first indigenous president over European-descendants who have led the country for decades.

Bolivia has been hit by anti-globalization demonstrations in recent years. Popular revolts by indigenous and union groups demanding a bigger share of the country’s vast natural gas resources have toppled two presidents.

Morales — a self-confessed follower of Venezuela President Hugo Chavez — has appealed to that popular anger on the campaign trail, also vowing to legalize growing of coca — used to make cocaine — as part of what he calls the building of a “new country governed by the majority.” ~Reuters

Whether or not Evo Morales will be a disaster for Bolivia (my guess would be yes), there ought to be little reason for Washington to be unduly concerned about Morales’ increasingly likely election. His election would serve as a welcome opportunity to begin rethinking the effectiveness and political viability of American drug policies in Latin America and an occasion to withdraw at least one hegemonic tentacle from another country.

The government is undoubtedly embarrassed by the popular resistance to U.S. drug policies in Bolivia, as Washington continues to attack the problem of drug interdiction both there and in Colombia as if it were primarily a military operation. The so-called “drug war,” obnoxious and illegal in so many respects both here and abroad, seeks on one side to eliminate a supply of something that can be easily cultivated and for which there is both high, relatively inelastic demand and consequently there are also equally tremendous incentives to grow the plant.

Defoliating coca fields and ruining the livelihoods of otherwise inoffensive peasants are failed methods of eliminating the supply of cocaine, and they work on the same buffoonish assumption behind the so-called “fly-strip” approach to terrorists in Iraq, as if there were a fixed and finite number of opponents to kill. Without absolutely reducing demand in this country and significantly improving border security, narcotrafficking and all the social ills that attend drug abuse will continue to be largely insoluble problems.

Cold, hard economic realities, only intensified by neoliberal policies, make coca farming the most advantageous cash crop for poor South American farmers to grow, and efforts to eliminate the growing of coca has tended to have the effect of alienating broad sections of the population in Ecuador, Colombia and Bolivia from both drug interdiction efforts and the U.S.-allied governments that support them. This alienation has helped fuel the success of FARC in Colombia, thus directly contributing to the power of narcotrafficking cartels and strengthening their ties to terrorist groups, and it could in time do the same in other South American countries.

Meanwhile, Mr. Bush can meditate on the real-world consequences of democracy in nations that either have been, or believe that they have been, exploited or abused by the United States. It will not result in governments friendly to the United States, and it will assuredly not result in peace.