Peru: the next Andean domino?

John Crabtree
23 June 2005

The next presidential elections in Peru are not due until April 2006, but campaigning is already underway among those hopeful to replace Alejandro Toledo. Although the candidates have promised to be respectful to one another, the campaign looks likely to be as dirty as any in recent Peruvian history – which is saying a lot.

Two candidates will almost certainly loom large in the race. Alan García, the former president, is once again pitching into the ring as leader of the centre-left Apra party. García’s record in office (1985-90) is widely condemned, but he is a canny and charismatic politician with an intuitive populist flair. His most credible opponent is likely to be Valentín Paniagua, who briefly occupied the presidency on an interim basis (2000-2001), following Alberto Fujimori’s precipitous resignation in November 2000.

Also by John Crabtree in openDemocracy:

“Bolivia’s retreat from civil war” (June 2005)

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Peru operates a “ballotage” system in which the two candidates with the most votes fight it out in a second round if neither wins an outright majority in the first. This makes electoral calculation particularly difficult. Twenty-seven political parties have already registered with the electoral authorities, and much will depend on who the first-round losers will then support. Opinion polls suggest that anti-García sentiment is much stronger than anti-Paniagua.

Many other candidates fancy themselves as “dark horse” possibilities who hope to profit from disillusion with established parties and their leaders and take the presidency more or less by stealth. They seek inspiration from 1990, when Fujimori, then an unknown entity, became an “outsider” president on a groundswell of anti-system sentiment.

Fujimori himself retains considerable popularity among low-income Peruvians, and has promised to stand – from his exile in Japan if need be. The electoral authorities have cast doubt on whether he will be allowed to run, and most other contenders are happy for his name to be kept off the ballot.

Peru’s malaise

Peru’s voters are in sullen mood. Alejandro Toledo is, according to repeated opinion polls, the most unpopular head of state in Latin America, with approval rates well below 10%. Although the economy has done well in recent years – with 4.5% growth predicted in 2005 – the poor (well over half of the electorate falls into this category) have felt little benefit. Inequality has become even more pronounced in what was has always been one of Latin America’s least equal countries.

The party system also elicits little enthusiasm. Although party politics has revived somewhat since the departure of the authoritarian Fujimori, parties are widely perceived as being inept, corrupt, and far removed from the interests of ordinary people.

The ruling party, Peru Posible, is an amalgam of politicians who hitched up with Toledo when he suddenly emerged in 2000 as the man most likely to defeat Fujimori. The main opposition parties, mainly Apra and the right-wing Unidad Nacional (UN), have done little to distinguish themselves in the eyes of voters. But their relative failure to oppose Toledo more forcefully is partly through fear of destabilising Peruvian democracy.

In Ecuador and Bolivia, presidents have been swept aside in recent months on a tide of anti-government protest. In Peru, by contrast, Toledo has managed to survive despite his deep unpopularity. Political protest in Peru tends to be localised and lack any national coordination. There have been serious flare-ups – for instance anti-privatisation riots in 2003 in Arequípa, protests by coca farmers from the jungle, conflicts between mining companies and peasant communities – but their impact has so far been containable.

Reforming the rules

Reformist attempts to revive Peru’s political system include a new law regulating political parties, approved by congress in October 2003. The idea, common in other Latin American countries, was to encourage the emergence of three or four stronger parties by making it more difficult for small parties to register. The existence of twenty-seven registered parties – and others are on the waiting-list – is eloquent testimony to the law’s shortcomings.

The law on parties was supposed to be accompanied by reforms to the electoral system, but most of these have failed to pass congress. Others required changes to the constitution, and there is now not enough time before the elections for these to be made.

Also on Latin America’s febrile politics in openDemocracy:

Guy Hedgecoe, “Losing Ecuador” (April 2005)

Ivan Briscoe, “Nèstor Kirchner’s Argentina: a journey from hell” (May 2005)

Arthur Ituassu, “A big mess in Brazil” (June 2005)

A new congress will be elected alongside the presidential election; both are due to take office on 28 July 2006. It seems likely that the new legislature will be even more fragmented than the one it replaces. Peru’s only strong party is Apra, historically renowned for its tight organisation and its cult of discipline. However, even Apra has suffered in recent years from public antipathy towards the political class.

Pockets and hearts

Apra is likely to focus its campaign on the failure of neo-liberal economics to bring tangible economic benefits to the majority of Peruvians. The party surprised many observers when it nearly won the 2001 elections by concentrating on specific weaknesses in the liberal model. However, Alan García will not challenge the model itself; he is aware that there is no public appetite for the sort of economic dislocation that followed his heterodox experiment in the mid-1980s.

Apra’s opponents will also find it difficult to strike the right balance on economic policy. Most support the liberal economic model, but are aware that this is not a popular cause. Since García seems to have the advantage in this area, his rivals are likely to target his personality and try to exploit deeply-rooted anti-Apra sentiments.

Peru is somewhat exceptional now in Latin America in the absence of any strong left-wing parties. The demise of the powerful Izquierda Unida (United Left) at the end of the 1980s has left a number of small, ideologically-driven parties that have little support or organised presence in society. There are few signs that any of these can reinvent themselves and offer leadership to the large contingents of the disenchanted.

Meanwhile, Sendero Luminoso (Shining Path), the Maoist-inspired former insurgent organisation, is a shadow of its former self. Its organised strength is confined mainly to coca-growing areas of the Amazon jungle. However, its political influence beyond these areas is not entirely dead. Former Maoists still control the powerful teachers’ union (Sutep), and this provides a route back into more conventional politics.

Peru’s long election campaign will give its people ample opportunity to assess the contending candidates and parties, but the fractious, unequal condition of the country makes it hard for a unifying political project to emerge.


Further links:

Peruvian Graffiti (blog)

Peru political resources

Resource Center of the Americas


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