Peru’s fourth consecutive democratic election has been marred somewhat by a series of events that have placed the Peruvian Electoral Commission at center stage.
Last week’s presidential election followed a familiar path, once again going to a second round which is set to take place in the first week of June.
But prior to the electorate’s trip to the ballot box, two candidates vying to make it to the presidential runoff were barred from participation.
Long-time poll leader Keiko Fujimori, the daughter of former president Alberto, comfortably made her way to the second round with 40 percent of the votes.
The battle for second place was much tighter but won by 77-year old Pedro Pablo Kuczynski, known as “PPK”, with 21 percent support.
Those barred, César Acuña and Julio Guzmán, had begun as relative outsiders but gained momentum when competing to be Keiko’s main rival.
Acuña was obliged to withdraw after the Electoral Commission found him guilty of handing out gifts to potential voters at a campaign meeting.
Guzmán, who subsequently benefited from a boost in approval ratings, was found not to have complied with candidate-selection rules. His disqualification was announced less than a month before the first voting round. A series of demonstrations reaching the tens of thousands quickly followed, reflecting a popular distaste at what seemed like a selective application of the law.
It should be recognized that presidential candidates in Peru have seldom been seen as paragons of virtue and several of the other candidates in the field share dubious track records. Changes to the law prohibiting the provision of gifts to voters was implemented midway through the campaign and so only served to add to the confusion as accusations were leveled at Keiko for committing the same offence.
The main beneficiary of the newly freed-up votes turned out not to be Keiko, though, but those battling below.
Verónika Mendoza, of the left-wing Frente Amplio party, was spurred on, particularly in the south, by the perceived injustices perpetrated by the Electoral Commission and rose from single-digit support to having a fighting chance of contesting the presidency.
Kuczynski, who had lost momentum, received a fillip that was significant enough to see him over the line.
The second round
As the second round approaches, a whole new election campaign of different parameters will be fought. The two remaining candidates represent continuity. Both are politically right of center and pursue roughly the same liberal economic policies; Keiko from a somewhat populist standpoint while Kuczynski represents the more technocratic option.
Keiko has campaigned diligently since her defeat at the last election in 2011, but has the double-edged sword of her father’s legacy. Although his supporters claim that he saved Peru’s economy and successfully tackled the Shining Path terrorist threat, his detractors view his legacy as one of authoritarianism and corruption. As such, visceral support and opposition to her message of securitization and entrepreneurialism from below is fairly entrenched. Around one in two voters say they would under no circumstance support her.
Kuczynski is hardly an ideal alternative, though. His long career in government and international organizations gives him credibility for the economic challenges of low commodity prices that lie ahead. But the fact that he has spent much of his life abroad with name and appearance to match means he could struggle to close the distance between himself and the poorest members of Peruvian society.
Moreover, Kuczynski supported Keiko in 2011 and ran a rather aggressive campaign against Mendoza. He will be hard-pressed to win over many new voters.
At a time of economic uncertainty, the Peruvian people could have voted for conservative continuity or a more radical alternative. Five years of broken promises, ideological vacancy and indecision under the outgoing president, Ollanta Humala, have shorn the left of credibility. As a result, a majority voted for a tried-and-tested formula that will preserve the status quo.
There is, however, an overall disconnect with the country’s political elite. Humala leaves office, as all his predecessors, amid tired expressions of disapproval.
When he was elected in 2011, Humala’s Peruvian Nationalist Party also obstained 47 out of 130 seats in Congress. He will be the first president to leave office having lost all congressional representation.
Furthermore, in a country where voting is compulsory, an 18-percent rate of absenteeism has become customary while a further 12 percent of voters left their ballot papers blank.
Should Keiko claim victory as Peru’s first female president in June, she will walk into a very supportive Congress where her Fuerza Popular party has just established an absolute majority of 68 seats against twenty each for Kuczynski’s and Mendoza’s parties.
Kuczynski may be the candidate with the momentum and many polls expect him to win. But for those voters who will be deciding the election, it is a choice for the lesser of two evils.