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Peruvians prepare to bite back

John Crabtree
3 April 2006

As campaigning draws to a close in Peru for the first round of the presidential elections on 9 April 2006, it seems increasingly probable that – once again – an outsider will come out on top. Since the beginning of the year, opinion polls have shown Ollanta Humala pulling well ahead of his closest rivals, the conservative Lourdes Flores and the centre-left former president, Alan García.

It still seems improbable that the vigorous, charismatic ex-army officer Humala will win an absolute majority. The most likely outcome of Sunday’s ballot is that the successor to Alejandro Toledo will be decided in a second-round contest between the two frontrunners on 7 May. The key battle on 9 April, therefore, is shaping up to be between Flores and García for second place. This contest is an echo of 2001, when García beat Flores in the first round only to be narrowly defeated by the now discredited figure of Toledo in the second.

Sunday’s vote also sees the election of a new congress. With twenty-five parties fielding candidates, the assembly will be a fragmented one, probably with no party holding a majority of seats. There will, however, be a large number of new faces, with a strong presence of Humala supporters, and with most of Toledo’s erstwhile backers losing their seats.

John Crabtree is a research associate at Oxford University’s Centre for Latin American Studies. He is the author of Peru under Garcia: Opportunity Lost (Macmillan, 1992), Fujimori’s Peru (ILAS, 1998), and Patterns of Protest: Politics and Social Movements in Bolivia (Latin America Bureau, 2005). He is the editor of Making Institutions Work in Peru: Democracy, Development and Inequality since 1980 (Institute for the Study of the Americas, April 2006)

Also by John Crabtree on openDemocracy:

"Bolivia’s retreat from civil war" (June 2005)

"Peru: the next Andean domino?" (June 2005)

"Bolivia on the brink" (October 2005)

"An Andean crisis of democracy"
(November 2005)

"Evo Morales’s challenge"
(January 2006)

A decisive week

Most political analysts in Peru agree that the last week before the election will be decisive in influencing voters, especially those still undecided or "floating". Most pollsters put Ollanta Humala comfortably in first place, with Lourdes Flores sinking in voter preferences and Alan García rising as voting-day nears. An opinion poll by the Catholic University of Lima, published on 2 April, put García on 19.9% (up nearly five points on a month before) and Flores on 22.9% (down over two points). A further poll on 4 April by Angus Reid Global Scan gives Humala 31% of voter preferences, Flores 26% and García 23% (two minor candidates, Martha Chávez of New Majority (NM) and ex-president Valentín Paniagua of Popular Action (AP), have 7% and 4% respectively).

During the early part of the campaign, Flores was clearly in the lead. She comes from the pro-business Popular Christian Party (PPC), but has successfully managed to widen her party’s historically narrow appeal in two key areas: among less affluent voters and outside the party’s main stronghold of Lima. She has consistently campaigned on the need for effective social policies to combat poverty. One out of every two Peruvian voters lives on less than the equivalent of $2 per day.

However, Flores’s opponents have managed to cast her as the "candidate of privatisation". Although liberal economic policies have successfully reduced once rampant inflation and increased the country’s exports, they have done little to create employment or to raise people out of poverty. Inequality – always hard to measure with any accuracy – seems to have increased as a result of the liberal economic policies pursued since 1990.

Alan García, whose term as president (1985-90) ended in economic and political crisis, has had to distance himself from the policies he once pursued, proffering instead a kind of Andean social democracy. He now says that he believes in the importance of the mixed economy, but still emphasises the importance of state intervention in specific areas, in particular in tackling poverty and inequality.

García’s main asset is his skill as a political tactician and orator. He has used these to good effect in the campaign, tirelessly criss-crossing the country and addressing large rallies. Unlike his adversaries, García also has the advantage of a strong party organisation. Even though his American Popular Revolutionary Alliance (Apra), Peru’s oldest party, has seen some of its support haemorrhage, it is still a formidable campaigning force.

The Humala phenomenon

However, it is the "Humala phenomenon" that has been the most remarkable feature of the election campaign. Six months ago, Ollanta Humala was a complete outsider. As an army officer, he came to public attention when he and his brother, Antauro, spearheaded an abortive military rising in October 2000 against the fraudulently re-elected government of Alberto Fujimori. Humala’s reputation was part-vindicated by Fujimori’s resignation a few weeks later. But to remove him from the scene, Toledo appointed him military attaché in Paris and then Seoul.

The ideology of the Humala brothers is nationalistic and authoritarian; this reflects their military background, but their ideas also draw on the complex fusion of national, racial and political consciousness (elaborated by their father, Isaac) known as etnocacerismo.

Yet since the beginning of the campaign, Ollanta has distanced himself from Antauro and other family members whose discourse is more overtly racist. He has sought to build bridges with sections of the traditional left, as well as a recruiting a motley bunch of collaborators, who make up most of his congressional list.

Humala’s recent rhetoric registers a perceptible shift of emphasis in an effort to broaden his appeal: "The people are waiting for change, they are desperate…The division in this country is not right versus left, but the powerful business elite against the rest".

In policy terms, Humala has promised to make foreign investors pay more by way of taxes, and to rip up the tax-stability agreements offered to mining companies by the Fujimori regime. He has also promised – like the new president of Bolivia, Evo Morales, in neighbouring Bolivia - to legalise coca, a matter of particular concern to Washington. Internationally, he has aligned his political movement with Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez, with whom he probably has more in common than Morales. He has promised to discard the Free Trade Agreement (FTA), painstakingly negotiated by the Toledo government with the United States and signed only in December 2005. In contrast to Toledo, who declared "(we) have reached an agreement where Peru came out the winner", Humala believes that the FTA’s terms favour the United States’s interests more than Peru’s.

The feelbad factor

The key factor boosting Ollanta Humala’s electoral campaign and wider political project is not so much his personality or his programme, but the deep sense of rejection of the political class and the operation of democracy in Peru (a trend mirrored across Latin America). He has successfully cast himself as the "anti-system" candidate, an artful variation on a theme developed by Peru’s two most recent presidents. Fujimori won the 1990 elections as a virtual unknown entity until the last weeks of campaigning; Toledo, who challenged Fujimori in 2000, only became the main opposition candidate late on in the campaign, when the reputations of his better-known rivals had been successfully besmirched by Fujimori’s propagandists.

Also on Peruvian politics in openDemocracy:

Ricardo Uceda, "Fantasy Island"
(September 2005)

Ricardo Uceda, "Peru’s election: a second leap into the void"
(January 2006)

Lisa Laplante, "The cloud of fear: Peru’s anti-terror lesson" (March 2006)

A recent opinion survey conducted by the Lima office of the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) provides telling data on political culture in contemporary Peru. It suggests that 70% of Peruvians thought that their democracy did not work, and of these 90% blamed politicians. Only 3.6% of respondents considered that the judiciary worked "well" or "very well", and 3% had the same opinion of the congress. More than two-thirds of respondents believed that the rich "are almost always exploitative", and less than 10% thought that it is thanks to them that there is work.

Just as significantly for the Humala campaign, nearly three-quarters of those who gave answers to the UNDP survey thought that what was needed was "authoritarian" government, with nearly 70% saying that those guilty of child molesting should be given the death penalty. With indices of criminality rising, most Peruvians think that the authorities do nothing to protect the ordinary citizen.

The demand for authoritarian government is nothing new – surveys of poor people in the 1980s suggested a strong nostalgia for military dictators – but it has become more pressing in the last few years. The Toledo administration is widely seen as ineffectual, and Toledo’s personal popularity has barely risen into double digits in the last three years.

Whether Ollanta Humala finally makes it to the presidency will depend on whether he faces Lourdes Flores or Alan García in a likely second round. Again, the opinion polls suggest that Flores would beat Humala, whereas Humala would beat García. But if 9 April proves to be only the "end of the beginning" of the election campaign, there is still plenty of time for the bets to change.

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