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Peruvian elections or how to change history for ever

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By Javier Farje, Latin America Bureau

humala_y_keikoOllanta Humala and Keiko Fujimori will face each other in June’s run-offMario Vargas Llosa has said it more than once: to vote for Ollanta Humala or Keiko Fujimori is like “choosing between Aids and cancer”. However, the Nobel laureate, for all his influence in a society proud of his literary achievements, has been ignored in a big way by the Peruvian electorate.Ollanta Humala, the former army officer, and Keiko Fujimori, the daughter of former president and now convicted criminal, Alberto Fujimori, will face one another in the run-off of Peru’s general elections, which will take place in June. Latest figures give Humala 31% of the votes and Fujimori 23%.

The Sunday 11th April election has been full of surprises. Former president Alejandro Toledo, who was way ahead in the opinion polls when the campaign started in earnest a couple of months ago, ended up in a dismal fourth place, behind Humala, Fujimori and former economy minister Pedro Pablo Kuczynski. The former mayor of Lima, Luis Castañeda, who was also well placed until some months ago, finished fifth.

Humala’s comeback has been remarkable.  In 2006, when he faced the now outgoing president Alan García in the second round of the general elections, he lost because he was perceived as a puppet of President Hugo Chávez, who not only endorsed his candidature but also insulted García, calling him a “thief” and threatening to break relation with Peru if García won. In fact, García won because many Peruvians saw Chávez’s comments as an intolerable interference in Peru’s internal affairs. Ever the seasoned politician, Alan García took advantage and Humala ended up on the losing side.

Humala had looked like a spent force, a man whose radical and sometimes incoherent rhetoric seemed out of place in an era of relative economic prosperity. On the other hand, Toledo, whose government had failed to redistribute the wealth generated by the high prices of minerals in the international markets, changed his policies, making them sound more “social”, to such an extent that some people on the centre-left of politics at first saw him as a plausible alternative to Humala’s radicalism or Fujimori’s return to the past. But he took his lead in the polls for granted and failed to build up a coherent campaign, paying a high cost for this.

Lula, not Chávez

Ollanta_Humala_y_Lula_da_SilvaOllanta Humala: closer to Lula than Hugo ChávezIn the increasingly unpredictable Peruvian political landscape, Humala’s eclipse proved temporary.   A more experienced politician by now, he changed his rhetoric. For starters, he abandoned some of the ideas that had alienated a great number of voters in 2006. He also toned down his anti-Chilean rhetoric. Peru lost a war against Chile in 1879, and many Peruvians still carry a grudge, especially now that there is a border dispute being discussed in The Hague International Court. In 2006 Humala tried to tap into this xenophobia but in the recent campaign he said that he wanted to improve Peru’s relation with its southern neighbour.

Humala also abandoned his “anti-imperialistic” style for a more conciliatory approach to the private sector, claiming that he’s not in the business of nationalising banks. He said several times that, if he won, Peru would not join the Bolivarian Alternative for the Americas, or ALBA, the Chávez-sponsored alliance of left-wing Latin American governments. Unlike last time, Chávez did not endorse Humala’s candidature, at least in public, perhaps recognising that his earlier attempt to help his “compañero Ollanta” had backfired spectacularly

Indeed, Ollanta Humala has tried to look more like Lula than Chávez. In February Humala attended the celebrations for the 31st anniversary of the creation of Brazil’s ruling Workers Party (PT) and met former president Lula. They both said that they shared the same concerns about poverty and development. Indeed, the PT sent advisers to Peru to help Humala’s elections campaign.

Is the past back?

On the other hand, Keiko Fujimori has tried to capitalise on the popularity that his father still enjoys in some sectors of the population. Many Peruvians still believe that Alberto Fujimori, who is serving several jail sentences for crimes against humanity, saved Peru from the evil of the Shining Path, the Maoist guerrilla that devastated the Andes in the 1980s. Many still believe that the death squads formed by Fujimori’s intelligence chief, Vladimiro Montesinos (also serving several jail sentences for the same crimes), were the inevitable price to be paid for the successful war on terrorism.

There was a climate of economic stability during the Fujimori years due to strict fiscal policies, and many believe that corruption (videos were shown where Montesinos bribed business people, journalists and politicians) is endemic and that, therefore, very little can be done about it.

In the 2006 general elections, Keiko Fujimori was elected to parliament with the highest number of votes in Lima, the capital of Peru and the centre of economic and political power. Even so, some believe that today she is suffering from the very tough line her father took against Shining Path, which means that some Peruvians, concerned about human rights, would never vote for her.

keiko-y-alberto-fujimoriSome people fear that Keiko Fujimori will have the same authoritarian tendencies of her fatherThe vast gap between poor and rich has also contributed to the success of Humala. Even though Peru is achieving the spectacularly fast growth rate of 7%, poverty has increased in rural areas, which are Humala’s natural constituency. Millions still lack basic services, with health and education being all but absent. Although poverty has diminished in real terms, there are regions, especially in the south, where the number of women dying in childbirth is extremely high. Indeed, the United Nations has put overall the number of women dying in childbirth in Peru at 240 per 100,000, which Amnesty International has called a “scandalous” rate. Moreover, many children in rural areas are unlikely to finish primary education.

Many indigenous peoples, whose environment has been threatened by Alan García’s twisted interpretation of development, voted for Humala. They feel, once again, abandoned by the central government and hope that Humala addresses that injustice.  Humala also attracted voters from the left whose parties have all but disappeared from Peru’s political arena. They have nowhere to go and Humala represents the only viable alternative.

The middle classes fear Humala and Fujimori for different reasons. Humala appeals to the poor and disenfranchised and that frightens the professional and entrepreneurial groups who run Peru’s economy. And they fear Fujimori because of the authoritarian tendencies her father showed during his government.

The question is: who will get the support of the defeated candidates? Toledo, who ended up in fourth place with around 15% of the votes cast, is not likely to endorse Fujimori’s candidature. Toledo fought against Alberto Fujimori’s attempts to get re-elected in the 2000 rigged elections. He may choose to keep his own preference close to his chest.

Pedro Pablo Kuczynski, a former economy minister in Toledo’s government, would not support Humala for clear ideological reasons. A right-wing candidate endorsed by the current ruling party, APRA (which failed to choose a candidate), he may favour Fujimori’s orthodox economic policies. But, having served in a government that fought against Fujimori could make it difficult for him to openly endorse Fujimori. His 18% of the votes will be crucial. Kuczynski was the surprise in this election. He almost got second place, despite the fact that opinion polls put him well below the other candidates.

Despite threats and warnings, Peruvians have decided to change the political landscape of their country. Nobody can predict the outcome of the run-off on 5th June. And, whatever happens then, nothing will be the same again.