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Race for the Center: Peru’s Runoff Election

April 27, 2011

According to data reported by the Peruvian ONPE, here’s the breakdown of the results for Round 1 of the Peruvian presidential elections:

To translate these numbers into English, 31.7% of the Peruvian population voted for left-wing populist Ollanta Humala; 23.6% voted for right-wing lawmaker Keiki Fujimori; and 44.7% voted for… somebody else. While some critics say that the polarized runoff is indicative of a Peru that is not yet ready for democracy, I see more sense in the assertion that the more moderate platforms of PPK, Toledo, and Castañeda canceled each other out. The three non-hardliners were too similar, splitting the centrist votes between them. Regardless, Humala and Keiko now vie for the votes of the center.

But it is a delicate dance. As they court the moderates, Humala and Keiko will need to be careful not to alienate the people whose votes got them where they are. While this is true for any political election, it seems to be intensified in this one only because the two alternatives are so different. And each brings its own baggage: one, painful memories of corruption and human rights violations from the recent past; the other, fears of importing el chavismo to el Perú.

While this is a generalization at best, it really comes down to a fight for the middle class–only it doesn’t really seem to be based on class warfare, like in Bolivia. In general, the upper class would prefer the relative stability of a heavy handed conservative (enter el fujimorismo, which effectively ended an era of hyperinflation in Peru), while socialism (potentially in the form of el chavismo) speaks deeply to the souls of the lower class. In the end, it is the vote of the middle class that Keiko and Humala seek.

On April 18th, a poll by Indice showed that in Lima and Callao, “53% of voters preferred Keiko Fujimori and 40.8% preferred Ollanta Humala.” However, Ipsos-Apoyo released data on April 24th indicating that Humala was leaving Keiko in his dust with a 42% lead over her 36%. (For the mathematically inclined, the remaining 22% reported being undecided.)

A report by the Associated Press provides the following geopolitical analysis:

The free-market friendly Fujimori is ahead in Lima while Humala leads outside the capital. Humala says he’ll redistribute wealth while respecting institutional democracy.

Mario Vargas Llosa has chosen to publicly support Humala, saying that electing Keiko “would amount to legitimating the worst dictatorship we’ve suffered during our history as a republic.” This prompted an open letter from Diego E. Arria, former Governor of Caracas and Ambassador to the UN, stating that:

If Keiko Fujimori is the wrong choice, it might cost Peru five years of bad government. If Ollanta Humala is the wrong choice, the cost for Peru could be a lost generation. The first scenario is probable. The second is a certainty that is guaranteed by the effective assistance of Cuban intelligence and by the power of Hugo Chavez’s petrodollars.

Both candidates have attempted to tone down their platforms, Keiko denying that she will exonerate her father, and Humala going to great lengths to distance himself from Chávez. But the fact remains that words are cheap. It’s impossible to predict exactly how a candidate will behave once elected; very few probably predicted that Alberto Fujimori and Hugo Chávez would dissolve the congresses of their respective countries after being democratically elected. In the end, the race to the center will be based primarily on rhetoric, and who is more successful in persuading the middle class.

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