Peru Election 2006

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A False Dichotomy

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By Maxwell A Cameron
Comment is Free… The Guardian, May 30, 2006 – 04:45 PM

On June 4 2006, Peruvian voters will choose their next president in a run-off between the top two contenders from the first-round election, which was held on April 9.
The polls put Alan García Pérez, the former president (1985-1990) and leader of the American Popular Revolutionary Alliance (APRA), ahead of Ollanta Humala Tasso, the outsider candidate and leader of the Union for Peru (UPP) who has aligned himself with presidents Hugo Chávez of Venezuela and Evo Morales of Bolivia.
It would be tempting, but wrong, to frame the decision as a choice between social democracy and radical populism. The Peruvian election exposes the fallacy of splitting the Latin American left into two great subspecies.
In a recent commentary in Foreign Affairs magazine, the noted intellectual Jorge Castañeda and former Mexican minister of foreign affairs wrote of “two lefts” – a “right” left and a “wrong” left. The “right” left is “modern, open-minded, reformist and internationalist”, although it springs from the “hard-core left of the past”; the “wrong” left, born of the great tradition of Latin American populism, is “nationalist, strident, and close-minded”.
Castañeda extols the virtues of Chile’s new president, Michelle Bachelet, Uruguay’s president, Tabaré Vásquez, and, with qualifications, Brazil’s President Luis Ignácio “Lula” da Silva; he excoriates the “wrong” left, as personified by Chávez, Morales, and Argentina’s Peronist President Néstor Kirchner. He does not mention APRA’s García but he lumps Humala together with Chávez and Morales.
It is true that there is a big difference between leaders like Chávez and Bachelet, but we should not assume that all leftwing movements in the region can be classified into moderate social democrats and radical populists. Peru illustrates why.
Neither Humala nor García fits comfortably within Castañeda’s dichotomy. García has sought to portray himself as a social democrat and an advocate of “responsible change.” Foreign and local investors embrace him as the best candidate to retain Peru’s pro-market, export-oriented economic model while pursuing reformist social policies. Yet APRA is the very embodiment of populism: it is a multi-class party led by a paternalistic leader who offers redistributive reforms in return for votes.
Humala is nowhere near as radical as Chávez. Nor does he have Morales’s democratic credentials. His programme is unmistakably social democratic. It is called “the great transformation”, in deference to Karl Polanyi, not Karl Marx. It proposes the development of internal markets, greater access to credit, support for agriculture, a renegotiation of the free trade agreement, food self-sufficiency, and the renegotiation of tax holidays or special royalty exemptions for foreign investors.
The programmatic differences between APRA and the UPP are so minimal that each side accuses the other of plagiarism.
The two candidates differ most in the sphere of politics. In the words of journalist Gustavo Gorriti: “Alan García could not be a dictator even if he wanted; Ollanta Humala could not be a democrat even if he tried.” In this view, García is the leader of an organised party and he would, in all likelihood, govern according to the democratic rules of the game. Within these democratic rules, however, García proposes the adoption of faceless judges in Peru’s courts as well as the establishment of the death penalty. He picked a vice-presidential running mate associated with a prison massacre for which he was responsible in 1986, and he refuses to accept the central findings of Peru’s truth and reconciliation commission.
As an outsider, someone who challenges the party system, Humala would have difficulty governing in accordance with democratic rules. In this sense, there are notable similarities between Humala and Chávez. Both started their careers with unsuccessful acts of military rebellion before running for office. Like Chávez, Humala has proposes a constitutional assembly to rewrite the nation’s constitution. In the process, he would almost certainly attempt to centralise executive power.
Evo Morales has also called elections for a constituent assembly in Bolivia, but the similarities between Morales, Chávez, and Humala should not be overstated. Like the Jacques-Louis David paintings of Napoleon crossing the Alps, Chávez, and Humala resemble Bonaparte-like leaders mounted on relatively feeble movements and parties; Evo Morales has risen to power with the backing of combative and well-organised social movements.
For two decades these movements have struggled for water, land and control over resources; in the process, a militant indigenous consciousness has been awakened.
The constitutional underpinnings of democracy are always at risk when a powerful leader proposes radical changes in a country with deep inequalities, especially when political parties are in an advanced state of decay. Even Morales’s detractors agree, however, that his electoral victory represents, for now, a deepening of democracy.
In contrast with Morales, Humala’s leadership reflects popular disorganisation. Confronted by Morales’s bold nationalisation of the oil and gas industry in Bolivia, Humala failed to define what, concretely, nationalisation of natural resources would mean should he win office in Peru. He calls for reparations for victims of human rights crimes but refuses to address allegations that he committed human rights abuses while serving as commander of a military base during the counter-insurgency war in the early 1990s. His electoral strategy oscillates between appeals to a disenfranchised rural supporters and assurances of moderation for urban professionals. A leader of a real movement–or an organised party–would be compelled to define a position on these issues more clearly.
A victory for APRA would signal a return to populism. APRA’s populism is not the strident subspecies that Castañeda deplores; nor is it anything like the Chilean-style social democracy he admires. García presided over one of the most corrupt and inept governments in Peruvian history, but he has won over many of the voters who cast their ballots behind more conservative candidates in the first round of the election. The business community and urban professionals back García as a bulwark against Humala – and the influence of Chávez.
Peru, like the rest of the region, no longer shows the enthusiasm it once did for the market-friendly economic recipes of the so-called Washington consensus. It is hard to generalise beyond that observation, except to say that a multiplicity of movements and parties is emerging in search of alternatives to the existing order. The idea of a “right” left and a “wrong” left, so redolent of the rhetoric of axes of good and evil, obscures more than it illuminates.

Written by Michael Ha

May 30th, 2006 at 4:37 pm

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