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Second time around: All eyes on Evo Morales

Ronald Rojas and Tandy Shephard


Photo: Tandy Shephard
Indigenous groups gather at the National Electoral Court in La Paz, Bolivia, in early December 2009.

The December 2009 election in Bolivia has been one of the most predictable in the country’s democratic history. It was a foregone conclusion that the Movement Toward Socialism (MAS), under the leadership of Evo Morales, would be the winning party. Despite this, prior to the elections, the media attempted to sway voters by transmitting information that depicted Morales as a man of broken promises and one who has only personal interests at heart rather than those of the Bolivian people. In the end, the opposition was hampered by a lack of structure and weakened discourse and thereafter, analysis of the election essentially focused on predicting the extent of Morales’s margin of victory that would be sufficient to win him a majority in Congress, giving him total control of state and governmental structures.

The indigenous leader won 64 per cent of the vote in a resounding and historic win; he won the popular vote in his traditional strongholds, but also made inroads in regions that he dared not even visit years ago. Morales won the vote in all departments except Santa Cruz, Beni and Pando, which went to his opponent Manfred Reyes and his conservative party, the Progress Plan for Bolivia (PPB). When comparing the 2005 and 2009 elections, the increase in MAS support regionally is quite evident (see Figures 1 and 2).

Figure 1: Results by department of the 2009 Bolivian general election


Figure 2: Results by department of the 2005 Bolivian general election


Implications of the elections

The resounding MAS victory, which is only comparable to those attained by the Revolutionary Nationalist Movement (MNR) when it dominated the political scene in the 1950s, allows for some important conclusions. First, the era of party alliances that required extensive congressional negotiations in order to reach power —even between parties on the opposite ends of the political spectrum— is over. MAS will now impose its hegemony as the state party, which will make it very difficult to differentiate among government, party and social actors.

Second, MAS will hold all the reins of power. Indeed, 64 per cent of the vote puts it above and beyond a two-thirds majority in the Chamber of Deputies and in the Senate, which implies it will be able to nominate all authorities. To put it succinctly, it will control all state powers: legislative, executive, judiciary and electoral. Morales may even secure his re-election if he decides to change the constitution in his favour again.

Third, Morales’s leadership has been clearly ratified due to his stroke of populism that masked his shortcomings in the development of public policy, as reflected by the increase in unemployment and poverty levels since he assumed presidency in 2005.

After using his first term to politically consolidate his 2005 victory, Morales’s main challenge this time around is to develop public policies that can effectively improve the lives of all Bolivians. It is a unique opportunity that he should seize.

Tracking progress through media

The question then becomes: how will citizens know if Bolivia is advancing under the leadership of Evo Morales? In Latin America, as in other regions, citizens depend on the media to receive information about what happens around them. Latinobarómetro, an annual public opinion survey, reported in 2009 that 84 per cent of Latin Americans rely on television to obtain information about political matters. The Bolivian media will therefore play an important role in informing citizens about the achievements, or lack thereof, of Morales in the years to come. Unfortunately, due to issues surrounding media ownership and a lack of transparency, ensuring that the public has access to objective and balanced information could be problematic, ultimately affecting its ability to make educated and informed decisions.

The media’s performance during the last election is a concrete example of this as coverage was politically biased and geared toward manipulating public opinion. Several private television networks, for example, attempted to use their airtime to promote a positive image of opposition parties, all the while sowing doubt about the capacity of Morales to have a successful second term. For example, a well-known private television network in Santa Cruz —a region where MAS finds little voter sympathy— gave premium airtime to opposition parties (i.e. PBB, Social Alliance, Alliance for Consensus and National Unity), broadcasting images that emphasized change, unity, progress, work and development. In contrast, when this network talked about MAS, it displayed negative images associated with Morales’s government, highlighting its failures and lack of ability. This station also publicly doubted the work of the National Electoral Court, mainly suggesting the possibility of fraud because of problems with the new biometric voting system.

Considering the control that media outlets have over the type of information transmitted, will Bolivians be able to make informed decisions based on Morales’s performance in the next four years? As demonstrated, the broadcasting of negative messages had no significant impact on Bolivian voting patterns, but it shows that the media can wield enormous power through the dissemination of information that reflects specific interests and opinions. It also proves that information broadcast by the media is not always objective, when it should be unbiased in order to allow citizens to make accurate and informed choices especially when such choices play an important role in shaping democracy. This is particularly important considering the MAS hegemony and its total control of power structures. Bolivians are entitled to correct and truthful information about the progress, or lack thereof, made under the direction of Evo Morales and the media will be a crucial tool for following future developments.

Ronald Rojas is FOCAL’s Project Manager for Education and Health. Tandy Shephard is the Project Manager for FOCAL’s Mapping Knowledge for Development in the Americas program. Projects include Mapping the Media in the Americas and Mapping Migration from the Americas. She can be reached at tshephard@focal.ca.

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