Immediately following allegations in March of this year that Peruvian President Alejandro Toledo had conspired with his sister and senior officials of his Peru Possible (PP) political party to forge thousands of signatures permitting him to register for the 2000 election, Toledo’s already low approval ratings fell to a dismal eight percent. Despite the seriousness of the March allegations, Toledo’s ratings had plummeted not only because of the accusations, but because they encapsulated his corrupt and ineffective presidency and represented the last straw for many Peruvians. His approval ratings have since somewhat improved, but even so, they are still alarmingly low – polling at 15.7 percent in July. Toledo has managed to survive and even thrive in conditions similar to those that forced out leaders in neighboring Bolivia and Ecuador, but the President’s miserable poll numbers and the nature of the candidates in next year’s elections, which include the disgraced former President Alberto Fujimori, raise serious questions about the health of Peru’s democracy.
Fujimori: An Affront to Democracy
Fujimori ruled Peru in an authoritarian manner from 1990 to 2000, when he left office under charges of corruption and human rights violations. His tenure as president was deplorable but not entirely bleak, even if his respect for human rights was nonexistent. Fujimori’s radical free market policies sparked impressive, if inconsistent economic growth, and he was responsible for the defeat of the Maoist Shining Path guerrillas who had terrorized Peru for much of the 1980s. For the most part, however, Fujimori did little to engender Peruvians’ affections. He oversaw a hugely corrupt regime that stole $1.8 billion from state coffers (though he claims ignorance and denies his own involvement), and was accused of rigging the 2000 election, in which he won an unconstitutional third-term over Toledo. Furthermore, he is wanted by Interpol on charges of kidnapping and murder for his handling of the conflict with the Shining Path guerrillas.
Fujimori ultimately resigned from the presidency in November 2000 amidst a huge scandal that erupted when his intelligence chief, Vladimiro Montesinos, was filmed bribing an opposition member of congress two months earlier. This incident erased all doubts Peruvians might have had about the systemic corruption of the Fujimori regime. As public support for his regime bottomed out in November – the opposition had gained control in congress for the first time in eight years – Fujimori traveled to Japan, ostensibly on state business, but in reality to safely resign as president because, as a descendent of Japanese parents, Japan could not extradite him back to Lima. Elections were held the following April and Toledo was elected Peru’s new president.
After leaving Peru, congress banned Fujimori from holding an elected office until 2011. He recently developed a new political party, Sí, Cumple (“Yes, he delivers”) and has vowed to return to Peru in time for the April 2006 presidential race. Despite constitutional obstacles to his candidacy and strong opposition from the majority of Peruvians, Fujimori tops some presidential polls with the support of up to 23 percent of the electorate. The majority of Peruvians who fear a possible Fujimori presidency can rest assured that his return to power would be unlikely because his congressional allies are not numerous enough to lift his ten year ban from holding public office. However, his mere reemergence in Peruvian politics is an affront to democratic practice because he has consistently betrayed the public’s faith by stealing untold millions of dollars from the Peruvian populace, and is easily prepared to circumvent constitutional practice when it is politically expedient for him to do so.
Toledo’s Failed Presidency
Toledo first became a major national figure as the de facto opposition leader after the first round of voting in the 2000 presidential election, when he charged that Fujimori had engineered his defeat. Then Toledo campaigned in 2001 on a platform of breaking with Peru’s corrupt past by pledging to create jobs and to aggressively attack poverty. At his inauguration, he said, “I’ll dedicate all my efforts,” to eradicate poverty and fight corruption, and “from this objective, no one will move me.” But he never fulfilled either promise.
While Peru’s economy has mildly improved since Toledo took office, the strains on the economically disadvantaged have not been relieved. Thus, discontent with Toledo’s economic policies has kept his poll numbers down throughout his tenure. Though Toledo promised a radical departure from Fujimori’s neoliberal economic policies, in fact he has quietly continued his predecessor’s approach, bolstering the country’s macroeconomic statistics (averaging at 4.8 percent growth in GDP for each year of his presidency) without much heed to Peru’s disadvantaged majority. This is illustrated by the country’s minimal job growth, while fifty percent of the population still live below the poverty line and 15 percent live in extreme poverty.
Toledo Maintains Power
Toledo broke his commitment to his people by falling prey to government corruption as well. In addition to allegations of forged signatures during his 2000 campaign, the Toledo administration has been rocked by claims that his intelligence chief, César Almeyda, accepted a $2 million bribe in 2002 from the Colombian beer company Bavaria so that the Peruvian government would approve its purchase of Peru’s lone brewery, Unión de Cervecerías Peruanas Backus, as well as accusations that members of his PP won patronage jobs from the government. Toledo’s sorry record of broken economic promises and government corruption shook Peruvians’ fear that a political power vacuum would prove disastrous to the country’s weak economy and, as columnist Mirko Lauer describes, worry that such a vacuum would allow either Fujimori or the Shining Path guerrillas to return to power. Peruvians’ fundamental lack of faith that a leader capable of securing Peru’s economic future can ensure the just use of power and prevent the resurgence of violence illustrates just how tenuous the democratic process is in Peru.
Toledo has also been able to maintain power by pursuing a narrowly acceptable agenda and seeking to offend as few interest groups as possible. For example, in 2002, after Toledo announced that he was going to privatize two electricity companies in southern Peru, five days of violent protests in Arequipa followed, which led him to backtrack and pledge that the government would continue to run the facilities.
Although Toledo’s governing style may prove successful in helping him retain power, it only further demonstrates the country’s domestic political paralysis. The Peruvian president’s reckless nature has prevented him from engaging in effective governance and has stripped the people of genuine representation.
Prospects for Democracy
The successive presidencies of Fujimori and Toledo raise serious questions about the future of democracy in Peru. The former’s rule gave rise to authoritarianism and corruption; with the latter, Peru faces a political crisis that has undermined the basic democratic tenet that the governing body represents the voice of the people. Furthermore, given that current polls for next year’s presidential election indicate that no candidate is supported by more than 25 percent of the public, it is questionable whether any of the contenders will achieve the widespread backing necessary to effectively represent all stratum of the population and pursue an ambitious enough agenda to break from the country’s troubled past and set Peru on a path to sustainable progress.