Same Old Story with Same Old Candidates in Peru

As has so often been in the case in Peru, all likely presidential candidates have skeletons in their closets.

Peru's first lady Nadine Heredia participates in a ceremony for the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women, November 25, 2011
Peru’s first lady Nadine Heredia participates in a ceremony for the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women, November 25, 2011 (Presidencia Perú)

In the wake of last week’s near shutdown of the Peruvian government, many of the names already well known to the electorate have been doing the rounds in political and media circles. The legislation that forbids a president from seeking reelection for a second consecutive term leaves all potential candidates thirsting for power. As such, they are already posturing in anticipation of the next presidential election.

Although the next election is not due to take place for another two years, the calculating preparatory stages are well under way. The election will offer a selection of runners and riders which, at the last time ballot boxes were visited in 2011, were described as a choice between “cancer and AIDS” by 1990 presidential runner-up and much revered Nobel laureate Mario Vargas Llosa. This underlines the fact that a typical Peruvian president in waiting comes with his fair share of baggage.

Last week, President Ollanta Humala’s capacity to govern was called into question after a cabinet reshuffle almost brought the government to a halt. The Peruvian political system requires the unicameral Congress’ approval for every cabinet personnel change. For the last thirty years, this was merely a formality. However, on this occasion, Humala was introducing former housing minister Rene Cornejo as his fifth premier in less than three years which was met with 73 abstentions and six votes against from an assembly of 130. What was essentially a vote of no confidence led nineteen of his ministers to resign — which in turn would have led the government into turmoil. Fortunately for Humala, when more votes were taken, Cornejo’s appointment was accepted.

What the members of Congress were objecting to was the alleged persistent meddling in ministerial affairs by Peru’s Twitter friendly first lady, Nadine Heredia. The newly appointed prime minister sought to allay fears by stating that the cabinet would represent a new start and that no such interference would take place under his watch.

This is just the latest indications that the president is losing control of the government. Humala was elected in 2011 on the back of seemingly heartfelt promises to reduce Peru’s inequality for which he received strong support from the poor and marginalized. He hails from Ayacucho himself, one of the Latin American country’s poorest regions. Yet this same Humala allowed his wife to deny that an increase in the minimum wage was part of government policy, thereby prompting his fourth prime minister, César Villanueva, to step down. At the same time, Humala has seen fit to raise ministerial salaries to what amounts to forty times the minimum wage.

Peru’s economy has been one of the world’s fastest growing in recent years, expanding 6.4 percent between 2002 and 2012. This has also resulted in the number of people living below the poverty line falling from 59 percent in 2004 to 26 percent in 2012. Yet with the country’s mineral trading partners’ economies struggling or at least slowing, the Peruvian rate of growth has started to decline. Despite Heredia’s husband presiding over a decline in growth, and his approval rating dropping to 25 percent, it is she who has set herself apart as an influential personal advisor. She also continually receives better polling figures than her partner and is now acting chair of the ruling party.

The constitution prohibits her from running as president as she is a close relative of the incumbent president but Heredia is being put forward by supporters as a potential 2016 candidate nonetheless.

This scenario somewhat echoes Peruvian politics of the last twenty years. After Alberto Fujimori carried out a presidential coup in 1992 and introduced a new constitution the following year, his supporters enacted a law of “authentic interpretation,” effectively allowing him to run for not two but three consecutive terms.

The Fujimori-Humala parallels do not end there. They have both been open to the use of violence when deemed appropriate, the former when authorizing death squad killings of Maoist terrorists; the latter through his association with his brother’s Antauro’s failed attempt to oust President Alejandro Toledo in 2005 which resulted in the deaths of four policemen. Fujimori has been in jail since 2009, like Antauro Humala serving a 25 year sentence for human rights abuses and corruption. His wife, Susana Higuchi, also became involved in politics as a member of Congress and it is Fujimori’s daughter Keiko who is leading in the polls for the next presidential election with 31 percent support.

The other main opposition to the first lady’s proposed candidacy is also representative of a recurrent theme. Former president Alan García has been accused of and investigated on charges of corruption yet he remains third in the polls with 7.8 percent support.

During Garcia’s first term, marked by hyperinflation, he is believed to have been guilty of multiple accounts of corruption and extrajudicial killings in the government’s struggles with the Maoist insurgents, offenses for which he had the audacity to extradite his successor Alberto Fujimori.

His second term, in stark contrast, coincided with the height of Peru’s meteoric economic rise but was tainted too by allegations of “narco pardons” where it is claimed that he took bribes for pardoning drug traffickers.

Incidentally, Peru now rivals Colombia as leader of the global cocaine trade.

Corruption and former presidents seem to go hand in hand in Peru as perennial presidential centrist contender Alejandro Toledo, who suffered a record low 7 percent approval rating as president, has been at the wrong end of allegations of illegal self enrichment as well.

Second in the polls is Pedro Pablo Kuczynski at 13.6 percent. However, he would be 77 by the time of the next election.

Perpetual presidential loser and Christian People’s Party representative Lourdes Flores makes up the rest of the numbers.

It is Mario Vargas Llosa’s assessment that García’s backers and the Fujimoristas are running a media “demolition operation” against the current government. With three likely presidential candidates running for election already tarnished by accusations of malfeasance coupled with limited alternatives, it is quite certain that it will be a while before the murky hand of corruption is fended away from Peruvian politics and transparency and stability can match the country’s economic development.