Elections in Peru

Peruvian presidential candidate Ollanta Humala


[Editor's note: The Spring 2011 issue of World Policy Journal features Emily Schmall's report on the struggle over the future of the Peruvian Amazon, which pits advocates for economic growth and energy-sector development against environmentalists and indigenous people. That conflict is a major factor in a contest for political control that will be on display this weekend when Peruvians vote for a new president.]

By Ingrid Rojas

On Sunday, Peruvians will head to the polls for the third presidential election since strongman president Alberto Fujimori left power in 2000. The legacy of Fujimori’s autocratic rule persists to this day in Peru’s weakened political institutions and chaotic electoral environment, where a multitude of independent political parties jockey for support.  Ten candidates are vying for Peru’s top post, representing personality-driven parties created specifically for the elections, unrelated to Peru’s three traditional political parties.

According to Patricio Navia, a Latin American studies professor at New York University, these parties threaten to undermine accountability.  “It’s equivalent to buying an airplane ticket from a pilot, rather than airlines,” says Navia. “You never know what you’re going to get.”.

This trend away from institutional political organizations and toward campaigns built around individual candidates began with the election of Alejandro Toledo in 2001 and continued with Alan Garcia’s victory in 2006.  Both ran on right-of-center platforms and are credited with taking Peru’s economy through a period of unprecedented economic growth and improved living standards. Toledo is one of the top contenders in this Sunday’s contest.

Another contender is Ollanta Humala, a former military officer offering himself as a leftist alternative to the decades of conservative rule in Peru. Humala narrowly lost the 2006 elections to Garcia.  This time, Humala has tried to project a more moderate image, distancing himself from his previous anti-capitalist platform and playing down his association with Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez.  Nevertheless, the specter of his victory has sent financial markets reeling.  According to Bloomberg News, Humala’s rise has “pushed up Peru’s borrowing costs and sent the sol to the biggest drop among emerging-market currencies since March 20.”

The race is virtually a dead heat, with Toledo and Garcia sharing front-runner status with Keiko Fujimori, the unabashedly right-wing daughter ex-president Fujimori, who is currently serving a 25-year prison sentence resulting from his conviction on corruption and human-rights charges.

In the latest Ipsos-Apoyo opinion poll, Humala is leading with 21.2 percent; Fujimori has 20.7 percent, and Toledo has 20.1 percent. Two other candidates hover around 14 percent. None of the five top candidates is expected to receive the majority vote necessary to win the elections outright. A second round of voting, scheduled for June 5, is deemed a virtual certainty.

“There’s a lot of concern in the middle class if Ollanta Humala or Keiko Fujimori go to the second round,” says Michael Shifter, president of the Inter American Dialogue, a Washington-based think tank. ”Humala and Fujimori might not be the best choices for Peru. They are polarizing figures and they would create significant problems for the country’s progress.”

Humala, 48, first made waves in 2000 when he and his brother led a short-lived military revolt against Alberto Fujimori’s corrupt regime.  He favors a more active role for the state in the economy, and would give higher priority to social-welfare issues than foreign investment. Keiko Fujimori, a 35-year-old who is currently serving in Congress, is not a completely conventional right-wing politician. She is popular among the lower classes due to her father’s low-income housing programs and soup kitchens. She has indicated her policies would follow those of her father and for this reason she’s perceived as a rightist candidate. Fujimori’s position in opinion polls has remained stable since January at around 20 percent, unlike the other candidates who have seen dramatic jumps.

Toledo, a moderate candidate who was president from 2001-2006, led in opinion polls with as much as 28 percent in February. He is credited with leading Peru into free trade deals that stimulated economic growth, and with strengthening democracy during his time in office. But his presidency was marred by personal scandals and allegations of abuse of power,  which have hurt his candidacy.

“Toledo has the greatest ability to govern, to reach out, create unity among Peruvians,” says Shifter. “He is a less polarizing figure than the other leading candidates.”

Polls indicate that as much as 30 percent of the electorate remains undecided. Analysts Shifter and Navia both predict Humala will be the top vote getter.  Shifter believes the most likely scenario will be a run-off between Humala and Fujimori, while Navia believes Toledo will be Humala’s opponent in a second round.

“Moderation is the strategy to win elections in Peru, and whoever makes it to the run-off is going to have to be much more moderate if he or she wants to win,” says Navia. He remains optimistic that Peru’s democracy is getting stronger and doesn’t see any of the candidates taking their cues from Chavez in Venezuela, or modeling their rule on Alberto Fujimori.

“The political party system in Peru is consolidating, whereas Chavez came to power when the political party system in Venezuela was weakening, “ says Navia, who is optimistic about the country’s future. “Peru is going in the right direction, and whoever wins will probably go in that direction, too,” he said.


Ingrid Rojas is a student at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism.

[Photo courtesy of Agência Brasil.]

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