Dexter Boniface

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Polarization in Peru: The 2011 Presidential Elections

In Elections, Human Rights, Peru on May 29, 2011 at 5:02 pm

When Peruvians return to the polls on Sunday, June 5, they will confront a stark choice as to who should be their next president. The presidential run-off election pits the left-leaning nationalist and former military officer Ollanta Humala against the right-wing populist Keiko Fujimori (daughter of jailed former president Alberto Fujimori) in what Nobel laureate Mario Vargas Llosa called, “a choice between AIDS and terminal cancer.”

Both candidates are indeed controversial. On the one hand, in his 2006 bid for the president, Ollanta Humala embraced Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez and continues to advocate a Chavez-style constitutional overhaul, media controls, and the redistribution of mineral wealth in Peru. Furthermore, Ollanta has been accused of serious human rights crimes, including murder, sedition and torture; his younger brother, Antauro, was sentenced to jail for leading a violent revolt against the government in 2005.  On the other hand, Keiko Fujimori draws a large base of her support from the followers of her father and former dictator Alberto Fujimori (1990-2000) who is currently serving a 25-year sentence for various abuses of power including ordering assassinations and kidnappings. Keiko maintains that her father is innocent of such charges. A few years ago, she pledged to pardon her father if she was elected (more recently she has backed away from this pledge, just as Humala has tried to distance himself from the more extreme views of his family members).

The Peruvian Paradox 

Considering Peru’s recent economic success and relative political stability, the country’s sudden political polarization is something of a paradox. How do we explain the collapse of the moderate political center in Peru? At least three explanations merit consideration. First, in what former U.S. ambassador Dennis Jett describes as “Peru’s political suicide“, the centrist vote was split between three relatively strong candidates in the first round of voting, including economist Pedro Pablo Kuczynski, former President Alejandro Toledo (2001-2006) and former Lima Mayor Luis Castaneda. Although they collectively captured 44 percent of the vote, they trailed Humala (31%) and Fujimori (23%) individually. Still, this explanation cannot account for the widespread appeal of Humala and Fujimori who garnered more than half of the first round vote. A second explanation, in turn, suggests that the benefits of Peru’s economic success have not been widely shared, causing the poor and disenfranchised to vote for more extreme options. A defeated Alejandro Toledo remarked, for instance, that voters, “expressed their rage … at having economic growth without the distribution of the benefits of that growth” (he made the same point five years ago). A third explanation suggests that it is the weakness of the Peruvian political system more generally that is to blame. For example, the collapse of Peru’s traditional political parties has enabled political outsiders such as Humala to gain increasing political clout. Similarly the failure of the political center to unite behind a single candidate suggests that politics in Peru continues to be personality-driven, with ex-presidents and their kin exerting a notable influence.

Peru 2011-2016: What Kind of Presidency?

Although both candidates have increasingly campaigned toward the center, many remain worried that Peru could be headed toward a more authoritarian and populist future, be it left-wing and nationalist (Humala) or right-wing and security-oriented (Fujimori).

Humala, for his part, has tried to distance himself from his previous association with Hugo Chavez and instead pointed to the Brazilian experience which, he noted, “has combined economic growth with social inclusion.” At the level of foreign policy, Humala has also expressed his desire to strengthen relations with the United States rather than the Venezuelan-led regional bloc ALBA (Alternativa Bolivariana para las Américas). Still, because of his past associations with Chavez and his status as an inexperienced political outsider, an Humala presidency would likely encounter stiff resistance from the business community, the news media and the traditional political establishment in Peru.

Keiko, for her part, has made fighting crime one of her key electoral pledges. T0 underscore the tough approach she would take on criminals (“mano dura”), she hired former New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani as a campaign consultant and had him join her on the campaign trail. If elected Keiko would enter office with at least some political experience (she was elected to Congress in 2006) yet would have trouble overcoming the shadow of her father.

Pre-election polls suggested that the two candidates were in a virtual tie.

Postscript: Victory for Humala

According to official returns, Humala won the election with 51.5% of the vote. Why did he win and what are the implications of his victory for the future of Peru? According to available data, Humala won with strong support from southern and eastern Peru, especially the rural interior — areas that have not benefited from Peru’s economic boom as much as the country’s urban coast. (He was also the preferred candidate among men and those over forty). Humala also succeeded in convincing many voters in the political center, including former presidential candidate Alejandro Toledo, that he would (broadly speaking) maintain free market policies and respect the democratic rules of the game.

Although the Peruvian stock market initially sank over fears that Humala’s victory could lead to radical changes in the country, seasoned observers are predicting that Humala will follow a more moderate and pragmatic course of action. Michael Shifter, for one, notes that Humala’s narrow victory represents “a mandate for moderate change” and “better distribution of the fruits of development,” but not a Venezuelan-style makeover. In a similar vein, Andres Oppenheimer, argues that Humala faces a number of constraints, especially an opposition-controlled Congress, that make radical changes unlikely–at least in the near term. Still others, such as the Christian Science Monitor’s Sara Miller Llana, see Humala’s victory as signaling the demise of the hard-core left in Latin America and its replacement with a new consensus model favoring growth with equity.

My take: I agree that there are reasons to be cautiously optimistic that President Humala will eschew the failed policies of the hard-core left in Latin America. As I noted in an interview with Florida’s El Sentinel, Humala (and Peru) has little to gain from a strong alliance with Venezuela President Hugo Chavez–and much to lose.