Peru’s Presidential Elections: Democracy in Danger?

Diane de Gramont

Peru successfully moved away from authoritarian rule and became one of Latin America’s fastest growing economies over the past decade. Yet the upcoming presidential runoff this weekend highlights its continued democratic vulnerability. 

The first round of the presidential elections held on April 10 produced two finalists with questionable democratic credentials and high disapproval rates. Left-leaning Ollanta Humala has been painted by his opponents as Peru’s Hugo Chavez, while Keiko Fujimori has prompted fears of a return to the decade-long authoritarian rule of her father, Alberto Fujimori. It is a choice that Peruvian Nobel Laureate Mario Vargas Llosa famously called a decision “between AIDS and terminal cancer.”

In a new Q&A, Diane de Gramont, who served as an observer in the first round of the presidential election, discusses why these two candidates emerged as Peru’s top presidential contenders and the country’s near-term political prospects.  

  • What are the main concerns about the June 5 election?
  • Peru enjoys one of the highest levels of economic growth in Latin America. Why did a leftist candidate who questions the free market policies that have contributed to Peru’s success win the first round?
  • Alberto Fujimori is in jail for corruption and human rights abuses. Why is his daughter so close to the presidency? 
  • What happened to the candidates of the democratic center?
  • Are Peruvians still committed to democracy?
  • What are Peru’s democratic prospects after the election?

What are the main concerns about the June 5 election?
This will be Peru’s third presidential election since its transition back to democracy in 2001—and it’s a major democratic test. Rather than consolidating, Peru’s democracy has in some ways become more fragmented and conflictive over the past decade. Peruvian voters now face a closely contested runoff between two candidates who threaten to divide rather than unify the country; before the first round, Humala and Fujimori had the highest disapproval rates of any candidates. 

Humala is a former army officer who came to prominence as an outsider candidate for the presidency in 2006. At the time, Humala proposed a radical shift away from Peru’s market-oriented economic model and received open support from Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez. He was also accused of human rights violations during the fight against terrorism in the 1990s and has alleged ties to a 2005 military uprising against President Alejandro Toledo led by Humala’s brother. Humala denies any connection to the uprising and has since moderated his economic rhetoric, but many Peruvians still believe he will destroy both Peru’s democracy and its economy. 

Keiko Fujimori is closely associated with the administration of her father, Alberto Fujimori, who is currently serving a twenty-five year prison term for human rights abuses and embezzlement. Fujimori was elected president in 1990 but closed Congress in 1992 and ruled Peru in an authoritarian manner for the rest of the decade. In 2000, corruption allegations forced him to resign and he fled to Japan. Keiko served as first lady of Peru after the divorce of her parents in 1994 and her campaign has relied heavily on her father’s record in office as well as his inner circle. 

Peruvians have doubts not only about these candidates’ commitment to democracy but about their basic qualifications to be president. Humala’s background is in the military, not public administration. Keiko served as first lady and for one term in Congress, but at 36 is young to be president. 

Peru enjoys one of the highest levels of economic growth in Latin America. Why did a leftist candidate who questions the free market policies that have contributed to Peru’s success win the first round?

Humala’s first-round victory was a result of both economic dissatisfaction and the fragmentation of pro-market candidates. Peru has seen impressive economic growth and poverty reduction, but not everyone believes their lives have improved. Inequality remains high and about half the population of the Andean and Amazonian regions of the country lives below the poverty line. In many areas there has been no discernable improvement in public services such as education or health care. Economic growth does not always trickle down fast enough to satisfy people who cannot feed their families. 

Humala has promised a fairer distribution of the nation’s wealth through higher taxes on mining profits and more social protection for the poor.

Yet Humala’s strong showing in the first round does not signal a sharp shift toward the political left in Peru. Of the five major presidential candidates, Humala was the only one who proposed a serious change in the economic model. By that measure, support for the left in Peru is only about 30 percent of the population. And Humala has moderated his positions considerably since his 2006 election defeat, playing down talk of nationalization and trying to portray himself as closer to Brazil’s Lula than Venezuela’s Chavez.

 Alberto Fujimori is in jail for corruption and human rights abuses. Why is his daughter so close to the presidency?
Like Humala, Keiko Fujimori benefited both from a core base of support and political fragmentation. Despite all his abuses, Alberto Fujimori is credited by many Peruvians with curbing hyperinflation and winning the war against terrorism. He is also fondly remembered for bringing state services to remote parts of Peru. 

When traveling within Peru, it is not unusual for local residents to point to a particular school, medical post, road, or other public work and say, “Alberto Fujimori brought us that.” As a result, about 20 percent of the population retains significant loyalty to Alberto Fujimori and his family. Keiko Fujimori focused her first-round campaign almost exclusively on cultivating this base. In a crowded presidential field, 23 percent of the vote was enough to propel her to the second round.

Since the first round, Keiko has risen in the polls primarily because she is now the only alternative to Humala. Peru’s middle and upper classes are not particularly happy with Keiko as a presidential option, but many are terrified of Humala and see her as a lesser threat to the economic system. She has also made an effort to expand her appeal, promising not to pardon her father and distancing herself from the abuses of his administration. 

What happened to the candidates of the democratic center?
The Humala-Fujimori runoff was at once totally unexpected and, in hindsight, not very surprising. Three other presidential candidates appeared to represent more moderate and broadly acceptable options: former President Toledo, former Prime Minister Pedro Pablo Kuczynski, and former Lima mayor Luis Castañeda, all of whom advocated basic continuity with Peru’s political and economic model. Yet Toledo and Castañeda ran lackluster campaigns while Kuczynski’s was more vigorous but late-blooming. 

As the election approached, moderate voters split among the three. Toledo made a belated plea for the three candidates to join forces in order to preserve democracy, but was rebuffed. In the end Kuczynski received 18 percent of the vote, Toledo 16 percent, and Castañeda 10 percent. If only a single candidate had reached the centrist constituency, he would have easily moved into the second round and been well positioned for victory. 

The first-round election results were also the result of the broader collapse of Peru’s political parties. Peru’s political party system fell apart in the 1990s and, instead of reviving, parties have weakened over the past decade. The party of the current president, American Popular Revolutionary Alliance (APRA), did not field a presidential candidate in 2011 and barely made it into Congress. The conservative Christian Populist Party, which placed third in both the 2001 and 2006 elections, has almost disappeared as a political player. 

Each of the five major presidential candidates headed personality-driven parties. Without stable party loyalties, voter preferences can shift dramatically overnight. A lack of parties also makes it more likely that candidates with similar voter bases, such as Toledo and Kuczynski, will run separately rather than hold a primary to decide on one candidate. This fragmentation benefits candidates with committed bases over those with wide appeal. 

Weak parties also limit the influence of the losing candidates during the second round. Toledo has endorsed Humala while Kuczynski and Castañeda are seen as favoring Fujimori. Yet without strong party organizations, it is difficult for any of the three to deliver votes for their preferred candidate.

Are Peruvians still committed to democracy?
Yes, but they would like their system to be more democratic. Polls show that only 15 percent of Peruvians believe an authoritarian government is ever preferable to a democratic one, but just 23 percent are satisfied with how Peruvian democracy currently functions. Explanations of voter discontent tend to focus on economic inequality, but weak political representation also plays a major role. Peruvians have the lowest level of support for Congress of anywhere in Latin America, with just 14 percent expressing confidence in their legislature. Representatives often communicate little with their constituents and the weakness of political parties makes it difficult to coordinate legislation and deliver on electoral promises. 

Peruvians who live in the poorer regions feel particularly isolated from the democratic process. Their elected regional governments have limited authority and weak capacity to deliver services. Participatory budget and planning mechanisms often fail to deliver concrete results. Most important decisions are made by the central government, but national officials are largely unreachable. Frustrated citizens often feel that the only way they can make their voices heard is by taking to the streets. The central government then brands them as uncivilized troublemakers and sends in the police. In April 2011 there were 159 active social conflicts across the country.  

Despite doubts about their commitment to democracy, both Humala and Fujimori appeal to voters who want a different, and arguably more democratic, relationship with the state. Both candidates have their strongest support among poor, rural voters.  Humala has positioned himself as a defender of the underprivileged, promising to support their rights against the economic elite. Meanwhile, Fujimori evokes for some fond memories of her father, who was a master of populist political patronage.  

What are Peru’s democratic prospects after the election?
It’s unlikely that Peru is headed toward a repeat of Alberto Fujimori’s dictatorship or Hugo Chavez’s Venezuela, but serious challenges remain for Peru’s democracy. Both candidates have tried to portray themselves as the democratic option in the second round and pledged to support democratic institutions and respect civil rights, including freedom of the press. Both have also pledged not to pardon their imprisoned family members (Humala’s brother and Fujimori’s father). 

It is impossible to know the true intentions of either candidate. Both will face limits on their ability to steamroll democratic institutions, but will still have significant opportunities to undermine democracy if they so choose.

When Alberto Fujimori closed Congress in 1992, the country was in the midst of a serious economic and security crisis. Keiko will not have a similar excuse to centralize executive power or to commit widespread human rights abuses in the name of combating terrorism. Yet this does not mean she will be completely constrained. The fragmentation of political parties and the lack of a strong democratic caucus mean that Congress is a weak check on presidential power. It may be relatively easy for Keiko to win congressional acquiescence by promising other favors in return. She may also have some leeway to co-opt the press, as her father did, and increase restrictions on civil society and public protests. The human rights community is very worried about reprisals for their activism against the first Fujimori administration. Yet she may also want to restore the reputation of the Fujimorista movement by governing more or less democratically.

Humala will face a different scenario if elected. Since most of Congress was elected on one of the center-right tickets, he will likely face serious opposition to any of his economic reforms. The national press is dominated by the political right, and thus prone to vigorously oppose him. This may be positive for democracy in the sense that it will constrain presidential power, but it could also provoke unnecessary and damaging political polarization. Humala has nothing like the broad social base of Hugo Chavez or Evo Morales and it will be more difficult for him to mobilize massive popular support against his political enemies. But there is some risk he could create public unrest if he chose to escalate a political confrontation.