Left-wing candidate Ollanta Humala emerged the victor in the most highly polarized and contested presidential elections in Peru’s recent history, in which polls showed the candidates in a statistical dead heat going into the June 5 vote. Humala won with 51.5 percent of the vote, while his opponent, Keiko Fujimori — daughter of former president Alberto Fujimori, now serving a 25-year sentencefor human rights violations committed during his 10-year authoritarian regime — received 48.5 percent.
Humala captured the vote of those who feel left out of Peru’s steady economic growth of the past 10 years. His constituency wants social policies that go beyond handing out food aid, as Fujimori’s father did, to include programs that generate jobs and improve the quality of life, as Humala has promised to do. He also ultimately gained the support of those reluctant to endorse either candidate. In the end, this pivotal group decided that Humala was a better option than another Fujimori in the presidential palace.
Humala moved to the center to win the elections. With a slim majority in Congress and a still-strong conservative opposition, however, he may well find it difficult to implement even his moderate program of change.
Volatile Electoral Process
Humala’s rapid ascent in the polls prior to the first round of voting on April 10 caught observers by surprise. Just a few weeks prior to the elections, he was polling in the low teens, and former President Alejandro Toledo was considered a shoe-in for the first round vote. But by mid-March, Toledo started to slip in the polls, while Pedro Pablo Kuczynski, a businessman who served as Toledo’s prime minister, saw his numbers rise. In the end, Toledo, Kuczynski and two-time mayor of Lima Luis Castañeda Lossio split the center-right vote. Together, they captured nearly 44 percent, while Humala came in first with 31.7 percent and Keiko Fujmori came in second with 23.5 percent. Fujimori basically maintained a solid block of about 20 percent of the electorate that has supported her father ever since his regime collapsed in 2000 in the wake of massive corruption scandals and charges of electoral fraud.
The results illustrate the volatility of electoral politics in Peru. If the vote had been held a few weeks earlier, Toledo would have likely beat out Fujimori in the first round. Had it been held a few weeks later, Kuczynski had a good chance of emerging victorious. In the end, the fragmented political field allowed Fujimori to make it into the second round. And Humala would most likely have lost to Toledo or Kuczynski in a second round vote. Ironically, the two candidates with the highest negative ratings made it into the second round. Polls prior to the first round revealed that over 50 percent of the population said that they would never vote for either Humala or Fujimori. In the second round, then, many voters found themselves forced to choose between the “lesser of two evils.”
Several factors help explain these results. Political parties have all but disappeared, along with strong political allegiances. Although each of the top five candidates had a core block of support, none generated much enthusiasm among the electorate more broadly. And apart from Humala, all were proposing more or less the same: continuity with market-oriented economic policies.
Perhaps the most surprising element of these elections is that the daughter of a former president who fled the country in disgrace after 10 years of massive corruption, abuse of power, and human rights violations came so close to the presidency just 11 years later. This is especially so since Keiko Fujimori ran on a platform invoking the legacy of her father’s government. Ironically, at her post-election rally after the first round of voting, supporters did not yell her name, but rather “Chino, Chino, Chino”—a popular nickname for her father. Although she tried to distance herself somewhat from her father’s government as the second round of voting neared, she was less successful than Humala in the race to the center. In the end, Humala convinced more voters that his move from a radical to a more moderate agenda was more sincere than Keiko Fujimori’s efforts. Humala was also able to move past allegations that he supported an attempted coup – led by his brother Antauro, now in prison — and that he committed human rights violations as an army captain during Peru’s internal armed conflict. Many voters decided that a return to Fujimorismo would have been worse. Keiko Fujimori also became the candidate of Peru’s economic elite, which proved to be detrimental to her support in poorer sectors.
Humala’s effort to moderate his discourse and reach out to the political center during the second half of the campaign was crucial to his victory. He sought to distance himself from Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez, with whom he was closely associated in his previous run for the presidency in 2006. Instead, Humala refashioned himself as a disciple of the highly popular former Brazilian president Luis Inacio Lula da Silva. He also broadened his team of advisers to include a range of progressive and moderate Peruvians. The new technical team produced a consensus document that reflects this broadened political coalition. The document proposes to improve Peru’s vastly unequal income distribution while respecting the free market economic model. At the same time, Humala's team has promised to make the Peruvian state more transparent, to root out corruption, and to respect democracy and human rights. Most importantly, the new plan offers a government of concertacion nacional, or a government of national unity. The outspoken support of Nobel Laureate Mario Vargas Llosa was also decisive in increasing support for Humala among undecided voters.
Of particular concern, during the sharp and polarizing political process — which lasted a grueling two months between the first and second rounds — the race- and class-based divisions that are such a remarkable feature of Peruvian society resurfaced with a virulence not seen since the height of the internal armed conflict in Peru. Peruvians concerned about the tone of racist remarks created a Facebook page called Democratic Shame in which people could denounce such behavior. Over 7,000 people have joined the page and have shared offensive remarks they have received or observed in the course of the campaign. Ollanta Humala’s Facebook page was frequently tagged with racist comments and posts, such as: “Shitty Indian, renounce your candidacy.” Tackling the underlying racism and classism that reared its ugly head in this electoral process will be a long-term and difficult process.
For the most part, Humala has gotten off to a good start in calming the political waters after the elections, promising a government of national unity that brings together the country’s diverse political sectors. Fujimori supporters jumped the gun by demanding, even before Humala was declared the official winner, that he announce his economic team to reass
sure national and international investors – even though key Humala advisors repeatedly said that there will be no nationalizations or property confiscations and that they would ensure macroeconomic stability. Conservative economic elites are threatening to withdraw investments from the country if Humala strays from economic orthodoxy and will no doubt show resistance to even moderate policy change, such as increasing taxes on mining companies (hardly considered radical in Latin America today).
At the same time, Humala will have to move quickly to implement the promises of his campaign to make Peru a more equitable and inclusive society. Humala’s victory is a stunning metaphor for the long-standing divide between Lima and the rest of the country. Though he lost by a significant margin in the capital (where Fujimori got 58.4 percent of the vote) and in some northern departments, he won 17 of 26 regions outright, concentrated in the south, central, and jungle regions of the country. He took Puno with 78 percent of the vote, Cusco with 75 percent, and Ayacucho with 73 percent. He won with over 60 percent of the vote in Apurímac, Arequipa, Huancavelica, Huánuco, Madre de Dios, Moquegua, and Tacna. Humala did not win a mandate for radical change, but he certainly has a mandate for some change. In particular, he has a mandate to address the concerns of the provinces regarding the concentration of economic and political power in Lima. Yet at the same time, Humala won by moving beyond his core political base to gain support from more moderate sectors. Some of these moderates support Humala’s vision of a more just country, but they may have very different ideas about how to achieve that change. In short, he will face pressures from all sides.
Another major challenge Humala faces is a deeply fractured Congress, which since 1993 has been a unicameral body and now has 130 members. His Gana Perucoalition has 47 congressional members. Humala thus lacks an outright majority that would allow him to easily implement his economic and social programs. He also faces a powerful and usually united opposition in Keiko Fujimori’s Fuerza 2011 which has 37 members, with potential allies among another 20 representatives from right-wing parties, which will most likely try to block his social and economic proposals. However, the last-minute support thrown to Humala’s candidacy by former Peruvian president Alejandro Toledo has allowed him to build at least a short-term coalition with Peru Posible’s 21 congressional representatives, the third largest block in Congress. That gives Humala a potential total of 68 votes in Congress, an extremely slim majority, and short of the two-thirds vote required, for instance, to make appointments to key posts like the Human Rights Ombudsman’s Office or the head of the Central Bank.
Finally, the way the second-round elections played out revealed the deep deficiencies still plaguing Peruvian democracy. Alberto Fujimori bribed or blackmailed the press into supporting his government. In a disturbing continuity, much of the mainstream media – owned by powerful economic elites —willingly supported his daughter's campaign this time around, shamelessly presenting campaign propaganda as news. If the last two months are any indicator, the relationship between the government and the main media outlets could become quite antagonistic, which could have terrible consequences for Peruvian democracy and freedom of the press as well as the right of Peruvians to have impartial sources of national news.
Another arena where Humala has sought to calm fears of radical change is international relations. He has immediately signaled the international community that his government will seek to maintain good relations with countries across the political spectrum. Hence, his first international foray to Brazil was followed by meetings with the presidents of Argentina, Paraguay, Uruguay, and Chile – rather than the more radical leaders of Venezuela, Bolivia, or Ecuador. Nonetheless, Humala’s victory reinforces the trend toward strengthening regional bodies and increasing independence from the United States.
Humala joins the group of progressive presidents that have taken office in South America in recent years: Argentina, Brazil, Bolivia, Ecuador, Paraguay, Uruguay, and Venezuela. Despite his conservative credentials, Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos has departed from former president Alvaro Uribe’s unconditional loyalty to the US government, seeking to shore up relations with Colombia’s neighbors, playing a stronger role in regional forums, and at times taking positions different from those of Washington. The only outlier in South American political dynamics now is Chile’s right-wing government. All indications are that Humala will strongly back and seek to strengthen the South American Community of Nations, UNASUR, which is playing an increasingly important role in regional diplomacy – and in standing up to Washington. He will also likely seek to revitalize the Andean Community of Nations (CAN) and consistently engage with MERCOSUR. In other words, Humala’s election gives a boost to regional integration efforts.
Humala’s first foreign visit after his election sends a clear signal that Brazil is likely to be his primary point of reference in international relations. At the same time, initial indications are that U.S.-Peruvian relations will remain solid for now. Throughout the campaign, Humala reiterated his desire to have good relations with Washington. Following his election, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton reached out with an invitation to visit Washington and Humala has indicated his intention to travel to the U.S. capital. Given that the United States has no ambassadors in neighboring Bolivia and Ecuador (or in Venezuela), it behooves the Obama administration to maintain a good working relationship with the incoming Humala government.
*Coletta Youngers and Jo-Marie Burt are Senior Fellows at WOLA.
(This originally appeared in 'Foreign Policy in Focus' on June 20, 2011)