Peruvian Voters May Not Get Change They Want

Voters are eager for change yet the highest-polling candidate is the runner-up from the last election.

Peruvian presidential candidate Keiko Fujimori meets with Prime Minister Pedro Cateriano Bellido, September 25, 2015
Peruvian presidential candidate Keiko Fujimori meets with Prime Minister Pedro Cateriano Bellido, September 25, 2015 (PCM)

Peru’s presidential election in April will come at a time when voters across Latin America are expressing a desire for change.

In November, for the first time since democracy was reintroduced there, a right-wing candidate, Mauricio Macri, was elected president in Argentina. December saw the Venezuelan Socialist Party lose its majority in the National Assembly after sixteen years in power. Dilma Roussef, Brazil’s president and leader of the left-wing Workers’ Party, is under threat of impeachment with approval ratings at an all-time low.

Voters in Peru are no less keen on a break even though their president, Ollanta Humala, has turned out to be far less radical in his populism than his 2011 campaign rhetoric and media coverage may have led them to believe.

Instead, his presidency has been characterized by vacillation, both in terms of policy and personnel — but with no great departure from the liberal economic path trodden by Humala’s predecessors.

Desire for change

After posting some of the world’s highest growth rates in the last decade, Peru’s economy is slowing. Growth fell to a manageable 2.8 percent last year.

Humala’s 15-percent approval rating is nevertheless on a par with that of leaders in crisis countries. His failure to make good on campaign promises and the lack of consistency in policy have resulted in the ruling Peruvian Nationalist Party (PNP) suffering its lowest support since its founding a decade ago.

Humala has gone through seven prime ministers and six interior ministers. Almost half of his lawmakers having deserted the PNP and corruption investigations seem to implicate the president and first lady in money laundering.

No party power

It is not unusual in Peru for political machinery to be weak: parties tend to serve as vehicles for popular candidates and — in many cases — are devoid of any discernible identity.

The presidential system was only strengthened when Peru’s constitution was revised in 1993. With candidates constitutionally limited to serving a single term, no party has enjoyed consecutive terms in government since the return to democracy in 1980. As the president’s five-year term draws to a close, dissatisfaction becomes a recurrent theme.

As if to make the point, the PNP has suffered another setback. Its presidential candidate, the little-known former agriculture minister Milton von Hesse, ended his campaign only six weeks after announcing it, citing a lack of funding and support.

Two of the oldest political parties in Peru, the American Peruvian Revolutionary Alliance and the Christian People’s Party — the former previously of the revolutionary left and the latter of the center-right — have allied just to have their voices heard, such is the malleable state of Peruvian party politics.

Next leader

The presidential race is, however, filled with a whole host of familiar faces, including former presidents tarnished by corruption scandals. Alan García and Alejandro Toledo, for all their experience, are unlikely to regain voters’ trust.

The pervading electoral trend in Peru, occurring on the last three occasions, is for the runner-up in the previous election to claim victory five years later.

The pattern seems to hold as the most popular candidate, with 33 percent support in the polls, is Keiko Fujimori of the conservative Fuerza Popular. She lost the 2011 election against Humala by around half a million votes.

Keiko, the daughter of the now-incarcerated former president Alberto Fujimori, sits twenty points ahead of her closest rivals, Cesar Acuña and Pedro Pablo Kuczynski.

But she is still way short of the 50 percent required to avoid a runoff. In order to secure victory, she will have to distance herself sufficiently from the authoritarian and corrupt practices of her father while retaining his reputation for economic competence and effective action on security.

Peru has a history of outsiders using late momentum to reach the second voting round and upsetting the odds by acting as the lesser of two evils. Both Alberto Fujimori and, to a lesser extent, Toledo did just that and so Keiko should be concerned about Acuña, the business-friendly former mayor of Trujillo, and his recent surge from relative obscurity to double digits and second place in the polls.

Acuña, the son of poor parents in Cajamarca and president of the private Cesar Vallejo University, has a record that allows him to combine a story of social mobility with a liberal economic outlook and he can credibly attack the governing elite from the outside. He could, if there is one, be Keiko’s fly in the ointment.