Peru Election 2006

The archived version

Elections, Democracy and the State

with 5 comments

Maxwell A. Cameron
June 9, 2006

It would be hard to understate the success of the second round presidential election on June 4, 2006. In the week prior to the election there was violence on the campaign trail and rumours of possible unrest in certain parts of the country if one of the political parties in contention lost. Yet election day came and the voters turned out in large numbers. They were orderly and peaceful. Yes, there was a confrontation in Arequipa after the polls closed, and there were isolated incidents elsewhere in the country, but by and large the election unfolded uneventfully. On 9:30 pm with over 77 percent of the vote counted, preliminary results were announced by the National Office of Electoral Processes; it was clear that Alan Garcia had emerged as the winner. There was no uproar, nor allegations of fraud. The reservists did not pour into the streets in protest. Everyone accepted the outcome as final.
The election is a big step in the consolidation of Peru’s democracy. Yet it also revealed huge divisions in Peruvian society, and it has exposed the limits of the Peruvian state. One of the biggest divisions is between town and countryside. In rural areas, voters sometimes have to walk for days to get to the polls. Others use public transport, but find that bus companies raise their fares to gouge customers on the weekend of the election. Rural voters often lack basic information about how to vote, or even where and when to vote.
Even more dramatically, many people in rural areas lack basic legal identification necessary to vote. The problem is most severe in the case of rural women. In some rural families, only the head of the household gets an identity card, leaving the rest of the family invisible to the state. A major reason for this is expense. Although it costs less than $10 (31 soles) to get an identity card, this is serious cash for those whose involvement in the cash economy is minimal. It is estimated that as over a million voters lack identity cards, and a quarter of a million people do not even have birth certificates.
Add to this the fact that many rural voters are illiterate and the problem is even more acute. Illiteracy is very high in rural areas. Statistics on this are unreliable, because there is no test of literacy when citizens take out their identity cards. People are merely asked whether they are literate. Rural schools are poor, and older rural inhabitants were schooled many years ago. They may have been taught to read and write at some point, but they are generally functionally illiterate today. Since members of voting stations are drawn by lottery, some of these people wind up becoming election officials on election day. The nice thing about lotteries is that they are democratic, but they also assume a basic level of civil competence. Without this competence, all sorts of problems may occur on election day and can give rise to material errors in the completion of voting returns. In some cases such errors can result returns from entire voting booths (which typically have around 200 voters) being annulled.
Add to this the complexity of the first round election, in which there were over 20 parties competing in three separate elections. Each member of the polling booth had to sign a form to install the poll, to carry out the scrutiny, and to close the poll. These forms were filled in at least 5 times (maybe more if there are lots of scrutineers who want copies), and had to be competed separately for each of the three elections. This meant signing at least 45 forms. In the first round, many members of polling booths were at work by 7 am and still signing forms by 11 pm in the evening—with only the most minimal sustenance provided during the day. The greater dispatch of the second round, and the speed with which results came in, demonstrates the difference that simplicity in the ballot can make.
The problem of the rural voter creates a huge opportunity for state building and the promotion of civil society. For example, peasant confederations could be used to distribute didactic material on voting procedures. Rural radio stations reach out to indigenous voters in their own native tongues, and they could be used to disseminate information about voting. In the process, resources could be channeled into rural areas and linkages built with rural communities. Peasant schools could be used for educating voters about the electoral process. A campaign to document voters would be a big step forward in promoting the presence of the state in rural areas, and the international community could be enlisted to provide resources. The state could also do a better job of getting voting stations into rural areas. More voting stations would help rural voters, especially if they were open for longer hours.
There is a notable contrast between the dramatic conditions that confront voters in rural areas and the hesitancy of officialdom to undertake steps that would make things easier for rural voters. For example, the Peruvian constitution is interpreted to mean that elections can only be held on one single day. This means there are no advance polls, nor can votes be submitted by mail. Advance polls are not logistically hard to organize, and they would take a lot of pressure off the entire system. The postal vote has been used by many countries around the world, and is not difficult to implement. Yet such simple reforms are met with indifference or resistance in Lima by officials and even by non-government organizations.
Electoral officials in Lima debate subtle distinctions such as whether election law permits a ballot to be “single” or “double,” or whether a general election is a single event or three separate elections (presidential, congressional, and Andean parliament). The various bodies responsible for the electoral process—the body that organizes the election, the body that resolves legal disputes, and the body that manages the voter list—wrangle at length over issues jurisdiction and competence. These disputes occupy much of the attention of officialdom, distracting them from focusing on more concrete issues like getting polling stations closer to voters or providing adequate training to the personnel in charge of polling stations. Last year a law was passed enabling the military and police to vote, yet the changes necessary to put this into practice were neglected. As a result, many soldiers were unable to vote because they were under orders to provide security for polling stations on election day. A postal vote would benefit the armed forces, as well as rural voters. It would also help people in jail who have not yet been found guilty. It would be one thing to dismiss the idea of a postal ballot if the state was capable of guaranteeing the vote to everyone legally entitled to vote, it is quite another when the state is denying the suffrage to those entitled to vote under the constitution.
Two aspects of the election process seem to cause serious distress and yet the willingness of electoral officials to address them is next to nil. One is the fact that voting is not only obligatory—the failure to vote results in a heavy fine. This punitive measure is especially harsh on poor people, and is bitterly resented. Why should voting—the ultimate act of popular sovereignty—be legally required? It would be one thing if the state were able to place polling stations near all voters and enumerate all those citizens eligible to vote. But if the Peruvian state is so deficient that it cannot provide legal identity to all its citizens, how can it insist that all should vote? Worse still, the fear of getting fined is a source of reluctance to acquire identity cards.
The second aspect of the electoral process that is unusual is the practice of destroying ballots once they are counted. As a result, recounts are impossible. Instead, when material errors appear in the voting returns, rather than recounting the votes, judicial decisions have to be made about whether voting returns are legally valid. If scrutineers of a political party challenge the results of a particular voting booth, it is not possible to go back and recount the votes. Rather, electoral official must decide whether to accept or reject the voting return. Advocates of this system suggest that the current system is better than retaining the ballots, since arguing over 83,000 voting returns (some 40 percent of which were challenged in the first round of this election) is more efficient than arguing over 16.5 million votes. The difference, however, is that all one can do with voting returns is decide whether they are legally valid. With original ballots the issue is not one of interpretation but one of simple recounting.
Another example of a regulation that was made by officials that simply cannot be enforced is the prohibition on the dissemination of polls one week before the election. In the age of the Internet, it is not surprising that the results of the polls conducted in the last week—and there are many such polls—circulate by a host of means and often wind up on the Internet reported by foreign services and returning to Peru. The law would be more enforceable if it prohibited the dissemination of polls for 24 hours or 48 hours before the election day, but one week is simply too long.
Political scientists Alfred Stepan and Juan Linz have argued that there can be no democracy where there is no state. The electoral process in Peru offers opportunities for state building that could, at the same time, reinforce democracy.

Written by Michael Ha

June 9th, 2006 at 8:13 am

Posted in Analysis & Opinion

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