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July/August 2011
Vol. 36, No. 4

Peru: Surprising presidential election results

The following article was written by Fr. Tom Burns, MM, who has lived and worked in Peru for many years.

On June 5, former army officer Ollanta Humala, with 51.449 percent of the vote, won the second round of Peru's presidential race, beating Keiko Fujimori, daughter of former President Alberto Fujimori – now serving a 25 year sentence for crimes against humanity -- who came in second with 48.551 percent of the vote. Even in Peru's normally fickle political climate, no one would have imagined this outcome at the beginning of the year.

In January five serious contenders vied for the presidency, three more or less centrist free market politicians backed in varying degrees by the national and international corporate interests: former president Alejandro Toledo (2000-2005), his former minister of economy and finance as well as prime minister Pedro Pablo Kuczynski (PPK); and Luis Castaneda, the mayor of Lima who had an 80 percent approval rating in Lima when he entered the race. At the beginning he and Toledo were the front runners. But by the end of March when the first round elections took place, PPK came in third, Toledo fourth and Castaneda fifth.

So what happened? Why did Humala and Keiko come in first and second? The three original frontrunners had campaigned to continue free market policies, promising that the benefits accrued over the past 10 years would continue to "trickle down." Of the three, only Toledo called for more equal redistribution. The others presumed that the seven percent average yearly growth over the past decade had benefitted all. After all, the percentage of people living in poverty in Peru had dropped from the low 50s to the low 30s. Both Humala and Keiko, on the other hand, had campaigned promising change (Humala from the left, Keiko from the right), which the people clearly wanted. Another mistake was that all three stayed in the race until the end; if one of them dropped out, one of the remaining two centrists would have been the leading contender in the second round and would have won.

Finally another significant dimension was evident in both Humala and Keiko: The people voted for the two who most represented figures of authority who would "get things done." Humala was a former soldier, Keiko the daughter of an authoritarian father and the people didn't have the time or the clout to get actively involved in every day politics. They wanted change and demanded results.

Humala filed a detailed 180 page plan to move from a market economy toward a nationalist economy with significant participation by the state; Keiko's plan was a 25 page outline and clearly favored the free market with a populist slant, bringing back memories of her father's style: supplying food to the soup kitchen and co-opting them politically, building new schools without reforming public education, etc.

The main strategy of the market economists and corporate interests who supported Keiko was to co-opt the media with a fear campaign by vilifying Humala as the "soul brother" of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, basically the same strategy they had used in the last elections in the runoff between Humala and Garcia. They failed to realize that Keiko was not Garcia and that Humala would gradually come across in the heat of the debate as a maturing politician capable moderating his policies but not his principles – as a politician who had learned to regard politics as the "art of the possible," as more of a Lula (the former president of Brazil) than a Chavez, or at least it seemed that way.

With few exceptions their anti-campaign was brutal and without letup, while only the Republica and the Primera newspapers supported Humala. Juan Luis Cipriani Thorne, cardinal of Lima, supported Keiko's campaign, while the Peruvian bishops' conference played more the role of a moral guide: using church social teachings to give the voter criteria for discerning the vote. It was a tough choice, a choice "between cancer and AIDS" in the words of the Peruvian writer Mario Vargas Llosa, this year's winner of the Nobel Peace Prize for literature. Vargas Llosa believes in the free market but he is just as committed to democracy and, therefore, totally opposed to authoritarian regimes. Within a few weeks he was cautiously siding with Humala as were many highly respected intellectuals.

Ten days before the election Keiko had a slight lead of one or two points in most of the polls. About 20 percent of the voters were undecided or were thinking of nullifying their votes. (Peruvians are fined for not voting). Up to the last few days, although the candidates were statistically tied, Keiko seemed to have a slight edge. It seems that most of the undecided opted for Humala in the end and that made the difference.

Humala's party has 47 seats in parliament; he has received the promise of critical support (but not an alliance) from Toledo, whose party won 21 seats. Since he needs 66 seats to constitute a majority and since the opposition will have the support of the corporate elite and their allies, Humala will have an uphill battle and will have to negotiate and implement his promised reforms gradually. He will be watched carefully, even by many of his new supporters.

In a public declaration signed a few weeks before the second round, Humala promised to respect the constitution and freedom of the press. Both the ministers of defense and the interior will be civilians. He will defend the separation of powers. His main thrust will be policies with sustained growth and inclusion: economic, social, ethnic, geographic and cultural, especially of the most poor. In this thrust he will have the support of Toledo who had made the redistribution of the benefits a key part of his program.

In May, according to the Ombudsman's office, there were 227 social conflicts in Peru, half of them related to mining, land rights and the environment. A major thrust of Humala's program will be to prevent these conflicts by working aggressively to assure safe mining and respect for the environment as well as increased benefits to the local population. To move in these directions, in his first year in office he will move to renegotiate a tax on the windfall profits of the mining sectors these past few years.

This will also allow him to implement a program called Pension 65 which will guarantee a monthly sum of around $100 to senior citizens, starting in the poorest areas of the country and moving gradually to cover all. He has promised to raise the minimum wage from $215 a month to $270 within the first year as well as implementing programs for infants and scholarships in public education for the youth. Combining steady growth with increased income from the tax on windfall profits, he hopes to be able to gradually implement his program responding to the poor's call for change and inclusion. His program promises to be more reformist than radical.

Another decision by Humala to increase confidence in the electorate and the market sectors has been to choose highly respected advisers from the center, mostly independents who had been associated with Toledo but were not party members. Once Toledo had lost, a number of his closest advisers chose to be on Humala's team, while remaining independents.

At this time, it seems that the waters are beginning to settle and a cautious hope is beginning to emerge.

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