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Peru's chessboard

John Crabtree
17 April 2006

The first round of Peru's presidential poll on 9 April 2006 is already becoming a distant memory, yet with just over 90% of the votes counted the country's citizens are still not sure who will challenge the frontrunner Ollanta Humala in the run-off now likely to take place in early June.

Humala's lead is one of the few certainties of the campaign so far. His vote of just under 31% puts him substantially ahead of his nearest rivals, Alan García (24.3%) and Lourdes Flores (23.6%). Under Peru's electoral laws, only the candidates in first and second place go through into the second round. This makes the political character of the two leading players, and the way the votes of the losing candidates are transferred, important in determining the final result. In this particular election, the very narrowness of the gap between García and Flores – a feature of the last weeks of the campaign and throughout the painfully slow count – is becoming a key factor in the outcome.

The interminability of the counting procedure is explained by the slim margin separating García and Flores, as well as the number of tally-sheets (some 1,700, accounting for around 8% of the vote, more than 1.5 million in total) being examined by the electoral court for supposed irregularities. The count itself has had many twists and turns: in its early part, Flores looked like making it into second place; then she was overtaken by García, then Flores began to narrow the gap in the weekend of 15-16 April. Amidst this uncertainty, Peru's electoral authorities say they hope to have a final result by 21 April.

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)

"Peruvians prepare to bite back" (April 2006)

Humala's appeal

The ex-military officer of indigenous origin Ollanta Humala projected himself in the campaign as a nationalist and leftist in an effort to appeal to those (especially among the poor) who resent the country's political class. Since one out of every two voters in Peru is considered to live in poverty (in many cases extreme poverty), the number of discontented runs into millions. Humala's support was indeed strongest in Peru's most socially-deprived departments, in the central and southern Andes. He won more than half the votes cast in the regions of Ayacucho, Apurímac and Huancavelica – also those where the Maoist guerrilla movement Sendero Luminoso (Shining Path) held sway in the 1980s and early 1990s. He also earned the most votes in poor departments such as Puno and Cuzco, as well as in those parts of the capital Lima where incomers from the provinces have built vast, sprawling shanty-towns.

The millions of poor who gave Humala their vote did so not so much because of his personality or the strength of his programme, but because he stood as an "anti-system" candidate. A recent United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) survey provided an illuminating measure of the level of distrust in politicians, parties and democratic institutions in the country. Most Peruvians, it seems, place the blame for their predicament squarely on the shoulders of the political class. True, this has long been a feature of Peruvian politics, but the degree of alienation has become especially marked during the sleaze-ridden government of outgoing president, Alejandro Toledo. For most of his five years in office, Toledo's popularity rating has seldom risen even to double digits.

Flores's hope

At this stage, Humala must be considered the favourite to be Peru's next president. But who will wrestle him for the position?

It is still possible – though on balance improbable – that the centre-right, business-friendly politician Lourdes Flores will join Humala on the ballot-paper for the second round. She won a handsome majority among the large numbers of émigré Peruvian voters, whose ballots are being added gradually to the official toll. She also appeared to have a fairly strong advantage in Lima, where just under half of the disputed tally-sheets come from. As the official count creeps towards a definitive result, the Flores camp has certainly not given up hope.

Lourdes Flores belongs to the rightwing Partido Popular Cristiano (PPC), whose support has risen considerably on the wave of her own campaigning. In general, she supports the neo-liberal and business-friendly policies of the "Washington consensus"; but as in the 2001 presidential election, she has placed much more emphasis than an earlier generation of conservatives on the need for effective social policies to tackle poverty and to reduce Peru's yawning social and ethnic inequalities.

If Flores were to win through to the second round, the battle with Humala would be one of ideological polarisation between left and right. According to opinion polls taken before the first round, Flores would win such a contest. This now seems improbable. The only part of Peru where her broad Unidad Nacional (UN) alliance finished on top was in Lima, where approximately 30% of the electorate reside. In most departments outside the capital, the alliance was in third or even fourth place. Flores, if she did manage to squeeze into the run-off, would attract the decided support of the business class and most of the media; but these alone would not give her the numerical boost she would need to win the day.

García's chance

The outcome of an Ollanta Humala-Alan García second-round contest would probably be a good deal closer than if Lourdes Flores was the main challenger. García and Humala's ideological competition is more directly for the leftwing vote. The ex-president (1985-90) García now distances himself from the positions he took in that era of expansion and runaway inflation, but he is still clearly to the left of a figure like Lourdes Flores. Moreover, he has two important political assets: he retains charismatic qualities, and has the American Popular Revolutionary Alliance (Apra) party to back him up. Apra is Peru's oldest mass party, and – in a political culture where party organisation plays a key role in getting out the vote – it possesses a level of grassroots mobilisation unmatched by its rivals.

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)

Justin Vogler, "Ollanta Humala: a Peruvian gamble" (April 2006)

Apra has, nonetheless, a long way to climb to turn Alan García's 24% support into a majority of votes. The party did score quite strongly in the coastal departments of the north, but it will need to attract large numbers of previously uncommitted voters to win the election. Apra scored poorly both in Lima and in southern areas of the country. If this is a worry for the party, its hope is that the media and the business elite may switch to supporting Apra as "the lesser of two evils" in comparison with Humala. Nor would such an advantage be enough; Apra would still need to show that it can make inroads into Humala's core support – and it will only do so by persuading poor Peruvian voters that the ex-officer's more radical option will make their lives even more problematic and uncertain.

The first round of the Peruvian election, then, offers little guidance as to its eventual outcome. If, as is likely, Flores is pushed into third place, few can bet with confidence on whether García or Humala will prevail in June. Either result would almost certainly represent a shift to the left after the Toledo administration. The result will be a rollercoaster ride both in domestic and foreign policy. Peru's new leadership might seek to revoke the free-trade agreement with the United States agreed in December 2005, and in any case pursue a less conciliatory policy towards Washington. Neither an assertive Garcia nor an outspoken Humala would be to the taste of the current US administration; but the scale of Peru's social problems will make it hard enough for either to satisfy Peru's own citizens.

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