Friday, June 02, 2006

Last Word on the Peru Elections

The second round of voting for the Peruvian presidential elections is scheduled for this Sunday, and all the polls are showing that Alan Garcia is likely to defeat Ollanta Humala by as much as 60 to 40 percent.

Polls before the first round of voting suggested that an Alan-Ollanta faceoff in the second round would be veru tight, some even showing Ollanta more likely to win. So what has changed?

The key seems to be that many who voted for Lourdes Flores or Valentin Paniagua in the first round have looked at the options actually in front of them, and decided to apply Polly Toynbee's peg to their nose and give Alan a tick. Even my friend Hugo, who had previously sworn to jamas vote for Alan, was having doubts. "Hmm, it seems that Alan may be the best candidate", he acknowledged.

He, like a significant proportion of others, is now planning to turn in a blank or spoiled vote in disgust at the choices on offer. But it seems that enough people will reluctantly vote for Alan just to keep Ollanta out: as much as Garcia's record is offputting, there is a sense that what an acquaintance of mine referred to as "ese militar" would be even worse.

Crucial in this turn has been the heavy-handed, bullying interventions of Hugo Chavez, who has repeatedly abused both Garcia and incumbent president Alejandro Toledo while endorsing Ollanta Humala.

Most Peruvians don't want to become a satellite of Venezuela, and given that many whom I talked to see international investment and tourism as crucial to their country's future, aren't keen to go down the Bolivian road of heavy-handed nationalisation.

It also helps that Alan has at least sounded like a model statesman, talking of "responsible change" and respecting democracy. He has moderated his populist appeal to hardcore followers and the poor with increasing sops to the centre-right. When he speaks, if you didn't know of his previous record, you could be mistaken for thinking he is the archetype Third-Way social democrat personified.

The western mainstream media's references to a "resurgence of leftism" in Latin America was always an unsophisticated description of diverse developments in different countries. True, as there has been a pretty consistent reaction against the failure of Washington consensus neoliberal economic policies to improve living standards for the great majority in the region. But it's more complicated than that. As I mentioned in my first post on the Peruvian elections, there is more than one vision of how to address the social problems of the continent.

An excellent analysis of the different approaches is provided in this article by former Mexican foriegn minister Jorge G. CastaƱeda. He distinguishes on the one hand the reformist social democratism of Lula in Brazil, Lago as Bachelet in Chile, and Tabare Vasquez in Uruguay. On the other, the authoritarian populist nationalism of Chavez, Morales in Bolivia and Peronist Nestor Kirchner in Argentina, Peronism being that country's unique brand of populism. Ollanta Humala is cited as an example of the second tendency.

There's no secret which left he (and I) favour. The former approach aims to incrementally improve social indicators; the latter tends to ignore these and focus on battling real or imagined enemies while making grand seeming but poorly evaluated gestures at "helping the poor". While social improvements and reductions in inequality have been slow or uneven in countries like Chile, Peru and Brazil, in Venezuela poverty has actually increased over the last six years of Chavez's mandate.

A Colombian paper I read the other week also made quite a clever distinction between "Chavezism" vs. "Blairism"as the competing forces on the international left. Brazil and Chile were again held up as examples of"Blairist" policies - mixing a broad faith in markets and international trade with increased investment in education, health and infrastructure (New Zealand, of course, is another in the sway of the Blairist model).

Garcia has embraced this dichotomy, and painted himself into the reformist corner. In recent days he has even specifically said that he wants to follow the example of Chile and Brazil, and that "Chile is an example for the region". Since Peruvians routinely like to beat up on Chile and blame it for their own country's ills, this represents a welcome attempt to model a more mature attitude. Mind you, this was an interview reported in the Chilean press: as in all politics, the message varies according to the audience.

Even more importantly, he has jumped heavily on the interventions of Chavez and suggested that Peru faces a choice between determining its own destiny (i.e. voting for him) or becoming another obedient client of big brother Hugo. "Peru or Chavez" has been his slogan in recent days, and this seems to resonate with many.

The bad news is that, after a relatively restrained and responsible first round of voting, things seem to have got progressively more disorderly. Humlala has called Garcia a "thief" and Alan responded by calling Ollanta a "murderer of policemen". Violence broke out between the opposing supporters at a May 25 political rally, and shots were fired. Both sides are accusing the other of having made a pact with Peru's favourite betes noires, Fujimori and Montesinos. Humala has made (unsubstantiated) allegations that a fraud is being prepared for Sunday's vote.

Even if the result is clear cut in terms of votes, the winner may well face questions as to their legitimacy, since both have chequered past records, many of their votes will have been registered as a protest against the other candidate, and the proportion of blank or spoiled votes will be high. At worst, there could be ongoing threats to the political stability that, for all his difficulties, Alejandro Toledo has maintained over the past five years.

It is to be hoped that likely loser Humala will maturely accept the result and focus on working from within the system to help make a difference to the lives of the 50 percent of Peruvians who still live in poverty.

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