May 31, 2011 7:20 pm by beyondbrics
By Max Cameron and Michael Marx McCarthy
This Sunday, when Peruvians go to the polls to elect a new single-term president, they will be casting their ballots in an echo chamber of analogies.
In politics, analogies can make game changing differences. Saddam Hussein was an Adolf Hitler. Nelson Mandela fathered a new South Africa. Obama represents the Joshua generation.
Sometimes these analogies hit the mark. They can reveal a profound truth by finding a hidden connection. Other times, they are more like card tricks, revealing less than they hide.
The front-runner in the first round of the election, Ollanta Humala, has been compared to Hugo Chávez. According to his critics, he would trample on Peru’s democratic institutions and create a self-perpetuating quasi-dictatorship.
The other candidate, Keiko Fujimori, has been called a Trojan horse who would take Peru back to the decade of the 1990s when her father ruled through a combination of bribery, blackmail, and abuse of power.
These analogies are both true and false.
Humala would not govern like Chávez because conditions in Peru are totally unlike those in Venezuela, which occasioned a system breakdown and paved the way for Chávez’s rise to power in 1998. Peru’s economy has been booming like thunder for a decade and millions have been lifted out of poverty.
No fundamental reversal of the policies that produced this socio-economic change is at issue. Rather, an urgently needed debate over wealth distribution has been stimulated by Humala’s candidacy.
Peru’s economic boom has resulted in a substantial reduction of poverty.
Today about a third of the country is poor, down from half the country a decade ago. But growth has been concentrated in Lima and the coast. In the south and central highlands and in the Amazonian jungle, poverty remains high and a ‘wild west’ approach to natural resource extraction has intensified conflict.
Indigenous Aymara in the highland city of Puno have captured headlines in the midst of the election campaign with protests against plans by Bear Creek, a Canadian miner, to open a silver mine that protestors say would pollute Lake Titicaca. A combination of negative environmental side-effects and a struggle over economic rents generated from these activities could fuel another cycle of violence and repression.
These pressures raise questions about Peru’s political institutions, which are not as robust as those of Chile and Uruguay, for example, often praised as poster children for democracy in the region. But the sky is not falling. A major collapse that would create an environment fertile for a ‘salve patria’ mission is unlikely.
To make Chávez-like changes, Humala would need a huge coalition hungry for major political transformation. This he does not have.
Moreover, one of Chávez’s most vocal critics in the region, Mario Vargas Llosa, is now supporting Humala.
He and other liberal intellectuals, including his son Alvaro, could convince undecided moderate voters that a Keiko presidency would not be compatible with democracy.
Their support for Humala stems from two factors: Humala’s move to the center and pledge to respect Peru’s democratic rules; and the direct connection that exists between Keiko and her father Alberto Fujimori, the former president who wielded power ruthlessly and arbitrarily in the 1990s.
Keiko was part of her father’s government, if only as “first lady” (a stand-in role that she assumed after her mother was brutally mistreated by her father). She has not repudiated her father’s policies, and we suspect she would release him from prison where he is serving a 25 year sentence for corruption and crimes against humanity. In fact, her campaign appears to have been run, in part, out of the penitentiary where father Fujimori is incarcerated.
Critics say the very same dirty tricks he used to perpetuate himself in power have been used in her campaign.
When a journalist in one of two pro-Humala newspapers revealed that the Peruvian military intelligence service was engaged in dirty tricks to support her campaign, the editor received a funereal bouquet. Another newspaper that is more sympathetic to Humala was purchased on masse to prevent circulation in certain districts of Lima. Much of the media is heavily biased against Humala, abandoning any pretense to neutrality in news reporting.
If she pardoned her father and attacked the judges who put him behind bars there is a danger that the entire mafia that ran the judiciary and armed forces, and which was never entirely purged by previous governments, would be reactivated.
Then there is the key matter of powerful interests and checks and balances, the main reason she represents by far the greater danger to Peru’s democracy.
Keiko has few incentives to govern democratically, while Humala faces constraints that may force him to govern democratically.
She would govern with the collaboration of powerful de facto interests – big business, the media, the armed forces, the most socially conservative forces within the Catholic and evangelical churches, and much of the political establishment – which would be all too pleased to watch as she imposed a “mano dura” (or iron fist) on crime and dissent, applied band-aide solutions for poverty, and asked for kickbacks in exchange for continuing “open for business” economic policies.
Humala, on the other hand, would be hemmed in on every corner. A hostile business community, rabidly critical media, nervous armed force, and all the corrupt office holders in congress, the courts and the judiciary would do everything possible to keep him off balance. The only way for him to govern would be to take the higher ground and rule democratically, since the legitimacy of his right to rule would not be backed by Peru’s powerful private actors.
All this tells us that Peru has a long way to go before it becomes a stable democracy with good governance and laws. For these ‘democratic consolidation’ strides to be taken, powerful actors will have to lose power.
Convincing elites that such a recalibration is a positive sum game will be difficult. But if Peru’s elites were to look east, across the Andes to Brazil, they would find inspiration from an elite that learned a worker’s political party headed by a worker could be good for business, good for democracy, and good for the welfare of society.
As the region’s weathering of the Great Recession shows, the Latin American left can be quite good for domestic and international business. Indeed, these elections, beyond determining the future trajectory of Peru, hold major implications for the ‘growth with equity’ development model.
An Humala presidency would broaden the reach of that social democratic model. A Keiko presidency would damage democracy and pay lip service to equity while growing the fortunes of the rich even more.
The bigger danger is not that Humala would reveal himself to be a wolf in sheep’s skin. It is, we fear, that he would turn out be like Obama: that he would come to power and find himself able to do very little to address his country’s deeper structural problems.
Max Cameron, a Peru specialist, is Professor of Political Science in the Center for the Study of Democratic Institutions at the University of British Columbia. Michael Marx McCarthy is a doctoral candidate in political science at Johns Hopkins University.