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Peru's election: a second leap into the void?

Ricardo Uceda
9 January 2006

The general elections of April 2006 may lead to the installation of Peru’s first woman president. The opinion-poll performance of Lourdes Flores, a 45-year old member of the Social Christian party, indicates that she may be elected in the second round after failing to win an absolute majority in the first. Her likely opponent in the run-off is the maverick army captain Ollanta Humala, who came to prominence by leading a military rebellion in October 2000. Humala, whose programme of nationalisation and of revising the contracts with foreign firms operating in Peru has support among the country’s poorest people, is not backed by any established political party and has had to borrow the name of a party already registered in the national election court in order to contest the vote. He still has no team or plan for government.

At present, Flores and Humala share the lead in the polls with around 21% each, followed by ex-presidents Alan García (16%) and Valentín Paniagua (14%). Recent historical experience in Peru suggests that these preferences could change a great deal over the next three months. There is a silent majority that is disposed to change direction at the slightest excuse, and this increases the possibility that neither Flores nor any of the other three leading candidates will win more than around 20% of the vote. In any case, it will be difficult for anyone to win outright in the first round.

Also on Peru’s political conflicts in openDemocracy:

John Crabtree, “Peru: the next Andean domino?” (June 2005)

Ricardo Uceda, “Fantasy Island” (September 2005)

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The lure of the outsider

Peruvians are profoundly discontented with the workings of a political system they regard as corrupt and incompetent. This is not a new attitude: it was expressed in 1990 when the unknown independent Alberto Fujimori broke through to defeat the writer Mario Vargas Llosa, who headed an alliance of parties. In 1995, Fujimori was re-elected against a challenge from a new candidate, the former United Nations secretary-general Javier Pérez de Cuéllar, as well as from the traditional parties; and in May 2000 he was victorious for a third time in disputed circumstances, before his precipitous fall and exile in November 2000 amidst a welter of human-rights violations and corruption charges.

True, the 1995 and 2000 elections can hardly be called democratic, as they took place when the populist Fujimori had abandoned constitutional checks and balances by dissolving the congress, and begun governing with the help of the army and the intelligence services headed by his closest ally, Vladimiro Montesinos. But it is undeniable that Fujimori benefited from solid support amongst Peru’s poor.

The ex-dictator, who found refuge in Tokyo – benefiting from his dual Peruvian-Japanese nationality – is now detained in Chile, after a (so far) abortive attempt to return to Lima to contest the 2005 elections. But if Fujimori believed that his return to Peru would awaken mass popular support sufficient to make him a decisive electoral force in the next congress and allow him to campaign for judicial immunity, he is likely to be mistaken. The government in Lima is strongly pressing for his extradition from Chile, and – despite an attempt by his daughter Keiko to register him on 6 January – such popular support that he has retained is now evaporating, as the poor have another candidate: Ollanta Humala.

But why should a considerable section of Peru’s voters be looking for someone from “outside” the system, whether Fujimori or Humala, long before the expiry of Alejandro Toledo’s term in office? The question is given extra weight by the fact that Toledo’s government (albeit marked by various scandals) has overseen steady economic growth and been favoured by good international prices for Peru’s exports. Why, in short, are Peruvians so dissatisfied with democracy?

One explanation is that even if the macroeconomic figures are positive, the benefits of growth have not reached the poorest. If there is less extreme poverty, the overall levels are still intolerable. Official figures show 10% unemployment in Lima, but these conceal as much as they reveal: around 60% of people in the city work in the “informal” economy – a large sector whose members are excluded from basic services like health, education, housing and sanitation. This makes understandable the demand for a more competent government, though in itself it is still not enough to explain why Peru’s poor voters should contemplate another “leap into the void” of the kind they took with Fujimori in 1990.

Thus a further explanation is needed, which involves taking seriously the popular conviction that all politicians from the established parties are corrupt and that none have any intention of narrowing the country’s vast inequalities. Peru’s voters see corruption as the principal national problem – even more serious than unemployment and poverty. They also believe that it is greater today than in the Fujimori decade.

Only corrupt

This popular sentiment is extraordinary, especially as it is being voiced at the very moment when revelations of the huge scale of corruption under the Fujimori regime – involving the executive power, the armed forces, the congress, the judicial system and the media – are continuing to appear. What makes it explicable is that neither the Toledo government nor the political parties that have dominated congress since 2001 have done anything to eradicate the roots of corruption.

This lack of responsibility was expressed in two ways. First, Toledo could never become a moral leader because it was obvious from the beginning of his presidency that he lied in public. For example, it was only the pressure of the media that obliged him to recognise his paternity of a young woman he had disavowed. Second, Toledo resisted taking drastic action even when corruption in his entourage was exposed. This has included legal cases against two of his brothers, his personal lawyer, and his chief anti-corruption adviser – a businessman and parliamentarian who had tried to undermine the prosecutor investigating the Fujimori-Montesinos era.

When Peruvians are asked what Alejandro Toledo’s worst fault is, they all say: he’s a liar. The political parties fare no better in public esteem, for their members in congress have continually voted themselves more privileges and payments. A poll conducted by the university of Lima found huge levels of mistrust: 92.2% of people do not trust political parties, 89.4% do not trust the institution of congress, 83.1% the judiciary and 82.4% the government.

In this gloomy context, Lourdes Flores has two distinguishing qualities: she has never governed the country and she is a woman. But if this helps to account for the high level of support she receives, she is in ideological terms also the candidate who best represents the dominant economic model – and this is less of an asset, for a recipe of more capitalism alone would be a guaranteed vote-loser. Flores thus also proposes drastic political reforms to address the country’s institutional crisis, but her rivals Alan García and Valentín Paniagua – who have already governed the country (though in Paniagua’s case only for a year) – may possess better credentials among voters in advocating such a package.

As the election approaches, many poor Peruvians believe that no candidate from within the established system will enable them to escape their miserable condition. They fully expect Flores, García and Paniagua to live with the reign of corruption (in particular with that of the judiciary and congress) – and they are sick of it. As a result, they will vote for anyone who offers to raze everything to the ground and take away the privileges of those who have benefited from the current “democracy”. Peru’s political system is living with the same disjuncture as in 1990 – only today’s outsider is called Ollanta Humala.

This article was translated from Spanish by Isabel Hilton

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