Thursday, April 06, 2006

Peruvian Politics 102

The previous post introduced the three main candidates for the presidency of Peru and described something of the political dynamic between them. In the last couple of days before the polls, extra edge has been added to the campaign, with Ollanta Humala saying that if Lourdes Flores wins the election "she won't last a year in power".

To the protests that he was inciting a revolt, Humala added the clarification that "the people" would rise up because of the continuation of failed neoliberal policies under Flores. But he has been roundly condemned for these statements by the media and other politicians, including fellow presidential rival Alan Garcia, who said Humala "needs to learn some democratic manners".

To round out the picture of the Peruvian election, it's necessary to mention a couple of the minor candidates.

Valentin Paniagua

Interim president from 2000-2001 folowing the resignation of Fujimori. Peruvian writer Herbert Morote, in his acerbic lament Requiem por Peru, mi Patria, says while imagining the damning assessment awaiting each corrupt and incompetent Peruvian president when they reach heaven's gate:

"We'll pass over Valentin Paniagua, who had little to do in barely a year that he governed following Fujimori. Panigua was a transitional president and apart from calling elections didn't do anything else. I lie, he also named the Truth and Reconciliation Commission [on the Shining Path insurgency], whose work is the most important that has occurred in all Peru's republican history.

Praised be God! Thinking about it again, reflecting carefully, perhaps the best thing for Peru is to have presidents that only last a year and don't do anything"

Paniagua is a centrist candidate whose party is called Frente del Centro. In recent polls, he has maintained a steady 6-7 percent. This is irking the supporters of Lourdes Flores, who feel he is splitting the middle class vote. In the 2001 elections, he did a Ralph Nader and allowed Alan Garcia to pip Flores at the post for second place and a place in the run off. In 2006, as Alan's poll numbers make a late surge, the same may happen.

Martha Chavez

If the description of Peru's election so far seems like a soap opera of recurring characters seeking revenge or redemption, the one name missing is that which dominated the 1990s - Alberto Fujimori.

Martha Chavez is effectively Fujimori's candidate. Her party is called Alianza por el Futuroo, but she is also affiliated with Fujimori's Si Cumple party. Her running mate is Santiago Fujimori, Alberto Fujumori's brother.

Fujimori himself tried to register as a candidate for the presidential elections, but the constitutional court ruled that this was not permissible, as there is a congressional ban on him holding office for ten years.

In November 2005, Fujimori, who has been in self-imposed exile in Japan, flew to Santiago in Chile, via Mexico. There, he was detailed by the Chilean police on request from the Peruvian government, and extradition proceedings have begun against him to face accusations of corruption and human rights abuses. These are no tlikely to be resolved for a good six months.

Meanwhile. Martha Chavez is maintaing 7 percent support in the polls, while her Alianza por el Futuro party has risen to 16 percent in the congressional election polls.

None of this entirely makes sense without the context provided by the incumbent president:

Alejandro Toledo

Toledo provides another version of the familiar Peruvian story of a leader arriving with great expectations but proving to be a big disappointment

Toledo's story is a rags-to-riches fairytale of an indigenous kid from an impoverished family in Chimbote who worked as a shoeshine boy before winning a scholarship to school in the United States and eventually to Stamford University. He got a PhD in economics and later worked for a range of international organizations, including the United Nations, World Bank, and OECD.

In the 2000 and 2001 elections, Toledo led the democratic opposition to the corrupt and authoritarian Fujimori regime. After eventually winning the 2001 election run off against Alan Garcia, he had a 59 percent approval rating; not only did he seem to have the technocratic credentials to run the country, he was also an indigenous "cholo" who had broken into the white-dominated world of Lima politics.

Since then however, it has all been downhill.

There have been scandals relating to the discovery of an illegitimate daughter whom Toledo refused to acknowledge; allegations that Toledo's party Peru Posible forged membership signatures before the 2000 elections (there's a rather odd law that political parties have to have a certain number of members to be allowed to field candidates); the appointment of a highly unpopular politican as foreign minister; criticisms of the presidential salary.

When I was in Peru it was de rigeur for everyone from politicians and the media, to striking street marchers, to the opportunist "rebels" in Andahuaylas, to demand the resignation of Toledo. His approval rating dropped at one stage to 7 percent, the lowest for an incumbent Peruvian president.

Yet to the outsider, none of the criticisms of Toledo seemed that damning. His sins seemed to have a touch of the Clintonesque - in the context of the country's history hardly the worst indicment.

Rather than especially bad or even incompetent, Toledo's main failings seem to be that he is weak, naiive, and out of touch. In his book, Herbert Morote tells an anecdote of seeing Toledo attend a conference in Madrid with international business leader; rather than promote the potential of investment in Peru, Toledo recounted his life as a child and how his suffering gave him solidarity with the poor. Says Morote, "it was like he was making an election speech in the town square".

Toledo's time in power is rather summed up by his reaction to the discovery of a fifth leak (within fourteen months) in the flagship gas pipeline from the Camisea field in Cuzco to Lima. Toledo said that if the international consortium which constructed the pipeline could be shown to be responsible for the failures, "they'll have to pay" -- conveniently overlooking the point that the time to play hardball on quality control with the consortium would have been while the pipeline was being built.

Nevertheless the dissatisfaction with Toledo probably has less to do with the man himself than with Peruvians' impatience with their lot in life. Overall, things haven't been that bad in the last five years, which have seen the return of democracy, a free and vibrant press, macroeconomic stability, and average economic growth of 4.7 percent per annum - close to the best in Latin America.

Unfortunately, this hasn't flowed through to provide much benefit to the population. Unemployment, high prices for basic goods such as petrol, rampant crime, poor infrastructure - these remain the realities for most.

Better can surely be achieved, though no politician will be able to deliver more than slow and incremental improvements - Peru's problems go muc deeper than quality of its leaders. Yet the flip side of the hero to zero complex suffered by Peruvian politicans is that the population still expects and demands transformative change.

In order to be successful, the new Peruvian president needs to not only convince the people that this is unrealistic, but that they themselves are a crucial part of any set of solutions. In about 24 hours, we'll have the first idea of who is likely to have that task.

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