Three candidates are the main challengers to become Peru’s next president in the upcoming April 9 elections. Former coup leader and retired military officer Ollanta Humala Tasso; conservative, pro-free trade Lourdes Flores, and former President (1985-1990) Alan Garcia Perez, have been more or less neck and neck in recent weeks, with Humala coming up fast. Unfortunately, the candidate best prepared ethically and intellectually – the Socialist candidate Javier Diaz Canseco – is out of the running. Aside from a whole roster of domestic issues that will be impacted by the race, the elections could very well determine if Peru will become part of the “pink tide” wave that is sweeping the continent. Meanwhile, Peru’s poor are speaking out in increased numbers, and the name they are now calling seems to be Ollanta Humala.
Polls, numbers, possibilities
Up to a few weeks ago, Lourdes Flores was running ahead of the other contenders with what analysts claimed was a clear lead of around 30%, against the 20%, more or less, for both Humala and Garcia Perez. Unfortunately for Flores, her advantage proved fleeting. Recent polls by the polling firm APOYO (published on April 2), have suggested that Humala has now risen to first place with around 30%, with Flores and Garcia Perez trailing with 26 and 22% respectively. Most of the other presidential candidates trail far behind, not even attracting 1% of support. Former transition president (2000-2001) Valentin Paniagua is at around 6%.
In what has become a cause for embarrassment for Peruvian polling organizations because of their having to acknowledge this fact, the prestigious APOYO polling firm was forced to admit that there likely would be a “hidden vote” factor of around 40%. In other words, 40% of Peruvians who will vote still have not decided which candidate for whom they will vote. For this mass of voters, many will probably make their decision only in the last moment, when they are at the polls. This could give any of the three principal contenders almost an equal shot at moving on to the next round.
One thing is clear from the current polls, no one candidate will receive the votes needed to be elected president (50%) in the first round, thus necessitating a second round run-off between the two top contenders. This scenario, which parties, analysts and the general public have long anticipated, has made deciphering Peru’s electoral future into a group of equations and likely scenarios which will be accompanied by a sequence of uplifting rhetoric. In short, the principal questions needing to be posed are: which two of the three top contenders will pass on to the second round? And, what behind-the-scenes deals and promises will be made by the two surviving contenders in order to gain the support of other political parties and voting blocs in the second round?
From Potatoes to Reggeaton – The Popular Vote
As usual in Third World nations, with Peru certainly not being the exception, the mass of the population belongs to the lower class. In Peru, a country with a population of around 25 million, the poverty rate is over 50%. This means that there is a gigantic voter pool among the lower classes of society (commonly referred to sections D and E by polling groups and political analysts), with Peru’s humble and meek almost certainly determining the identity of the country’s next president. These individuals are the ones who do not necessarily watch nighttime political talk shows on TV (assuming they have TVs) nor care much about a candidate’s overall policies except how it will immediately affect them. In recent months, all three candidates have strived to make themselves appear to be “one of the people.” For Ollanta Humala, becoming this meant resorting to such activities as presenting himself in the most visible scenario in Peru: a soccer match. Last March, during a match between two of the most popular teams in Peru, Alianza Lima and Universitario de Deportes, a man in a glider suddenly appeared in the sky and then proceeded to land in the middle of the field, in front of over 30,000 fans present in the stadium and millions watching the match via TV, which, because of its importance was being shown nationwide. The man in the glider had a big board tied to him bearing the name, “Ollanta Humala.”
Meanwhile, Lourdes Flores has been invigorating her campaign by making a habit of visiting shantytowns and rural areas to elicit support. By now, she has become well known for going to various neighborhoods to eat the local cuisine as well as dance traditional Peruvian dances like the marinera. Not surprisingly, these attempts to become popular among the masses have not always worked too well for Flores. In a recent visit to Arequipa, in Peru’s southern region, people threw rotten fruit and empty plastic bottles at her. Finally, Alan Garcia Perez’ APRA party came up with the idea to capitalize on the reggeaton music craze sweeping Latin America today, launching a long commercial of a dancing red star (the party’s symbol) and singing a reggeaton song in its praise.
The “Humala” Craze
But it has been Humala’s candidacy that has become the spice of the Peruvian elections and which has brought international attention to the contest. He has essentially become the Peruvian Hugo Chávez as both he and the Venezuelan president share much in common. They are both former military officers, both led failed coup uprisings and then turned to politics, and both are immensely popular with the masses. Even though he does not have Chávez’s great communication skills when giving speeches, Humala has secured a place in the hearts and minds of millions of impoverished Peruvians because he speaks in simple terms and because is not considered part of the traditional parties that for long have ruled the country. For the masses, these factors are what brings them to Humala’s tumultuous rallies – they are also drawn by the candidates pledge to break existing agreements to fumigate coca plants, veto any free-trade agreement which is signed by the outgoing President Toledo, and link his country’s hemispheric policy to the broad “Pink Tide” movement led by Chávez.
Peru’s Future Obstacles and Humala’s solutions
The legacy of the Alejandro Toledo presidency (2001-2006) couldn’t be more sour. The next president will have a wide number of issues, both domestic and international, to face. The country’s economy is still very fragile and at the mercy of international markets. A lot has been written about a possible free trade agreement with Washington (which Lourdes Flores supports). Toledo declared that he would sign the FTA after the first round of elections, but before the likely run-off (May 9). The president of the Peruvian congress, Marcial Ayaipoma, has declared that in May, congress would deliberate on the agreement and vote on it by June, just before the new president and congress are scheduled to take power on July 28. In other words, Toledo and his legislative confederates intend to thwart a prospective Humala victory by staging a de facto coup against the principle commitment of the Humala campaign – blocking the enactment of the FTA. In addition to the FTA with the U.S., there is also the issue of China. President Toledo has attempted to increase trade ties with China, a decision which worked against him and which has increased his unpopularity, as Peruvian workers and business leaders express their concerns about the destabilizing effects such ties will have on Peru’s economy. For example, China showed particular interest in increasing exports of textiles and pharmaceuticals to Peru, a move which would have put thousands of Peruvian micro-industries at risk.
Worker protests still occur on a weekly basis someplace in the country, usually with similar demands: more jobs, better wages, better working conditions. Toledo, formerly with the World Bank has argued that economic neoliberalism was the answer to the country’s problems – however whatever minor successes he might have had (the country’s economy has indeed grown the past few years, increasing by 6.7% in 2005) have fallen way short when it comes to improving the living standards of Peruvians in general. This is the issue for which Humala has received the most criticism. His declarations about how his government would revisit previously signed state contracts and the hinted possibility of reverting some industries back to state control have, on some occasions, brought down Lima’s stock exchange as investors express their fear over what Peru’s economy and trade balance would look like if Humala is elected. It has been repeatedly stated by his political opponents that if Ollanta is elected and what appear to be his extreme radical nationalist ideas become ascendant, the leader will end up isolating Peru, and abating projects like the proposed inter-Oceanic highway that would cross the Peruvian regions of Cuzco, Puno and Arequipa. Humala has set goals that he wants for Peru, to “beat globalization,” to have a strong economy and a strong merchant navy. However, it is still not clear how he will make this become a reality.
The armed forces and police (numbering around 180,000 in total), will vote for the first time in the April elections. It seems that most of them are likely to vote for Ollanta, albeit somewhat reluctantly, since he is a fellow military officer. Garcia Perez would most likely get some votes, not because he is particularly well liked by the military, but because there are many former generals among APRA’s ranks running for congressional seats and the military’s loyalty to them may transfer to the man who heads the APRA ticket. Lourdes Flores, due to her controversial role in the negotiations to end the border dispute with Ecuador in the late 1990s, is likely to receive relatively little support from them.
Finally there is the ever present threat of the resurgence of the terrorist movement Sendero Luminoso (Shining Path). An organization that was believed to have been destroyed in the early 1990s when most of its leaders were captured or killed, has since made an ominous comeback in recent months, ambushing soldiers and policemen in the Peruvian rainforest, and could become a big problem for the government. In what can be regarded as a telephone call that Shining Path still exists, the daily El Comercio reported on April 4 that the inhabitants of the Andean city of Huanuco woke up to find red pieces of cloth with the hammer and the sickle, as well as pamphlets calling for a boycott of the April 9 elections. Humala has been a staunch supporter of modernizing the Peruvian armed forces. As a former military officer who was involved in operations against Shining Path during the early 1990s, he is fully aware of what a resurgence of this movement would mean. Should he win the elections, Shining Path would have in front of them a Peruvian military and police that once again is fully backed by the government to do “whatever is necessary” to eliminate them, human rights violations to be damned.
Also in play are the sort of foreign policy choices Peru will have to be making in the future. The three candidates have distinctively different goals in this area, given the ongoing Washington – Caracas feud that has slowly divided the hemisphere.
Lourdes Flores is known for her support of the free trade agreement with the U.S., which has made her the obvious choice to be Washington’s favorite. Other than this, she has been silent regarding her foreign policy plans. Alan Garcia Perez has appeared as the most moderate of the three contenders, he is a cautious supporter of a free trade agreement with Washington. During his rule in the 1980s he self-declared himself Campeón de la Paz (champion of peace). Should he maintain such a stand today, a Garcia presidency would likely seek to strengthen Peruvian relations with Chile, which have hit rock bottom in recent years.
Ollanta Humala, considered the most radical of the three candidates, has become known precisely because of what direction his government’s foreign policy could take. He recently met with Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez and recently-elected Bolivian president Evo Morales in Caracas. It is unclear if Humala is a die-hard “pink tide” supporter, (there are no guarantees he inherited his father’s deep left ideology) or if he will turn out to be another Lucio Gutierrez, the Ecuadorian president who ended up becoming Washington’s servitor and supporting the U.S. military presence in Manta, after promising his indigenous allies that he would not do so. What has put Ollanta in the news is his promise to revise contracts that previous governments have signed, like, for example, Chile’s ownership of most of the country’s ports, despite the historic tension between the two countries. He also has voiced his support for a stronger armed forces, which has probably made Santiago uncomfortable. In an interesting twist of events, Salomón Lerner Ghitis, a man who is regarded as someone “close” to Ollanta, met in Santiago in late March with Christian Barros, Chile’s ambassador to Peru; Osvaldo Piccio, former spokesman for former Chilean President Ricardo Lagos; and Esteban Silva, a Chilean who once served as advisor to Toledo. Humala has publicly declared that he was not aware of the meeting, but Peruvian newspapers like Correo and Peru 21 as well as Chile’s La Tercera, mention that the meeting was likely about Peruvian-Chilean relations in an eventual Humala presidency.
Vote, and hope for the best
On April 1, Javier Diez Canseco, presidential candidate of the Partido Socialista (PS – Socialist Party), told Peru’s daily La Republica that voting for either of the three major contenders would bring the country “a third and grave frustration.” His words resonate: after the Alberto Fujimori dictatorship (1990-2000) and the current Toledo presidency, most Peruvians feel, that in spite of their promises, none of the current candidates have the capacity necessary to bring the country into the 21st century. Humala may have the backing of a significant part of the country and a high international profile, but it remains a matter of conjecture if he will be able to deliver his promises, or if he will fail to deliver on them as has been the case of so many of his predecessors.