South America's Populists

By , Barry French is an associate at the Sawyer/Miller Group, an international consulting firm.

RECENT elections in Peru, Brazil, and Bolivia have shed light on a new phenomenon in South America that is having a wide impact in the region: the media personality turned politician. Television and radio have provided new avenues for entry into politics for those with no previous political experience and have given politicians and non-politicians alike new methods for communicating with their electorates. While the participation of media personalities in politics is not limited to South America, the trend in South America is particularly interesting for what it indicates about the changing nature of politics in this region.

In Brazil, Silvio Santos, the host of a 10-hour Sunday TV show, dramatically altered that country's political situation by announcing that he was a candidate for the presidency only two weeks before the Nov. 15 first-round elections. Immediately Mr. Santos vaulted to the top of opinion polls, with 29 percent of the voters saying that they would cast their ballots for him.

Yet he has little political experience, and has never articulated his stand on the issues; indeed, he declared boldly, ``I do not have a program.'' Even though this startling bid was soon rejected by the Brazilian electoral authorities, it indicates the potential power of media personalities, particularly those with audiences such as Mr. Santos, who is seen weekly by almost 30 million TV viewers.

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In Peru's municipal elections, Ricardo Belmont, a well-known TV station owner and TV personality, was elected mayor of Lima. He beat a number of well-established politicians, including Juan Inchaustegui, the candidate of Mario Vargas Llosa's leading Fredemo coalition, which won most of the country's municipal elections.

Mr. Belmont never elaborated a clear government plan, never addressed the major concerns of Lima voters (namely the problems of transportation and the removal of the city's rapidly accumulating garbage), and never used any TV advertising or campaign billboards; yet he won the election by a large margin.

In Bolivia, Carlos Palenque, a TV and radio personality, made a respectable showing in the May 7 presidential elections and now has a good chance of becoming mayor of La Paz, Bolivia's capital and largest city. Although he lost the presidential elections, he won in La Paz, receiving nearly 40 percent more votes there than did Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada, the winner of the nationwide election. Now Mr. Palenque has won the popular vote in the La Paz mayoral race.

Yet, like Mr. Santos and Mr. Belmont, Mr. Palenque has no previous political experience and his primary qualification for elected office is his high visibility.

The entry of media personalities into politics may be the result of three factors. First, during the years of military rule there was a population shift from rural to urban. This process has increased exposure of the population to TV (and, to a lesser extent, to radio, which has long had considerable importance in the rural areas).

In addition, the modernization that has taken place, particularly electrification of urban slums and rural villages, has broadened access to mass communication. For example, it has been estimated that almost 80 percent of Peruvians now own televisions. In many cases, traditional political figures have been slow to recognize these changes and have failed to take advantage of new methods of communicating with their electorates.

Second, the formation of this television generation occurred at the same time when South Americans had decreased access to politicians, a result of military government restrictions on political freedoms and on the press. Thus, while media personalities were gaining name recognition among a vast audience, many politicians were being forced into the background of public life.

Finally, is South America's present reality of oppressive poverty and its disillusionment with traditional politicians. Once the countries of South America shed their oppressive military rulers, their democratically elected leaders were far from successful in managing their respective national economies.

Again, Brazil, Peru, and Bolivia provide excellent examples of this fact: In Peru inflation is running at over 2,500 percent annually, and in Brazil price rises reached 36 percent in the month of September, leading to comparisons with the Weimar republic. In Bolivia the situation is somewhat different, for while the annual inflation rate was as high as 24,000 percent as recently as 1985, the government of Victor Paz Estenssoro (and its Finance Minister, Gonsalo Sanchez de Lozada) instituted a highly effective program that slashed inflation dramatically.

This argument is not meant to imply the military juntas were successful in economic management; Indeed, in most cases they were not. Unlike the democratically elected leaders, however, they could not be voted out of office. Current leaders are being forced to pay for economic mismanagement, and disillusionment with their performance has forced South American electorates to look outside of the traditional political circles to address their desperate economic situation. TV and radio personalities, with their high visibility, were found as a viable and easy answer to this quest.

Here in the US, we should not misconstrue the political popularity of media personalities as either a questioning of the values of democracy or a trivialization of politics. Certainly, there is little questioning of the democratic process; Rather, there is a growing frustration with the traditional political leaders and their continuing economic mismanagement. And the charge that this new trend implies trivial or cynical attitudes towards politics is clearly misplaced, for electorates in South America continue to retain a fervor that has long been missing here in the US.

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