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Bolivians have given a vote of confidence to the government's tough anti-inflation policies, even though the result of Sunday's presidental ballot is still unclear, diplomats and politicians say.

Ruling party candidate Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada, architect of the economic model, was locked in a close battle with conservative former military president Hugo Banzer as the official count began.Unofficial results compiled by television and radio stations showed them in a tie with 26 percent each on the basis of tallies received directly from some 50 percent of the polling stations.

Moderate-left candidate Jaime Paz Zamora was trailing some four points behind.

Regardless of the outcome, the government's frontal attack on inflation, which it has cut from over 24,000 percent to under 20 in four years, had clearly won the backing of the voters, diplomats and politicians said.

Banzer's party gave congressional support for the National Democratic Movement's (MNR) austere economic program and claimed during the electoral campaign to be the intellectual author of much of the plan.

"Those that say you lose an election by taking harsh economic decisions have been proved wrong," said one senior diplomat. "There is a lot some of Bolivia's neighbors could learn from this."

The official results are not due until May 28, then Congress will have to decide in August whether millionaire businessman Sanchez or Banzer, a former military ruler, takes office as president.

According to the Bolivian constitution, a candidate must take 51 percent of the popular vote in the first round to win the presidency outright.

"The (economic) policies will continue regardless of whether Sanchez or Banzer is president," U.S. Ambassador Robert Gelbard said.