In an agonizingly tight race featuring months of theatrics from an unprecedented five presidential candidates, the climax in the weeks ahead of Sunday’s vote in Peru has been the dramatic and unforeseen rise of nationalist Ollanta Humala.
Nervous investors in Lima, who thought they had seen the last of Humala when he narrowly lost the 2006 election, joke—half way—about leaving the country. Die-hard Humala supporters speak passionately about the potential for a new economic model in the resource-rich Andean nation. Despite being one of the world’s fastest growing economies, Peru is stuck with a high 35 percent poverty rate.
But as Peruvian sociologist Julio Cotler points out, Peru is not Venezuela and Humala would likely fall short of delivering the dramatic change as president that many, for better or worse, expect of him—if he manages to eke out a second-round victory in the June runoff.
Humala 2.0, a churchgoing family man who wears suits and ties, downplays his military past and has virtually disowned his radical brother, who is in jail for leading a failed uprising. He does not utter the name “Hugo Chávez,” though Venezuela’s president loomed large during his 2006 campaign, and he pledges to respect Peru’s free-trade agreements (FTAs) and the central bank’s independence.
The whole transformation is eerily reminiscent of Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, a former radical who arguably became Brazil’s most popular president ever.
Though the soft-spoken Humala has benefitted from being the only candidate in a crowded field that voters see representing a different economic policy, he lacks the charisma and ability to spawn mass movements that the region’s legendary populists are known for.
The real tragedy on the eve of the election is in fact not the rise of Humala, but rather the political system that led to the likely outcome of Sunday’s vote: that Peruvians will be forced to choose between two candidates the majority of them reject.
Poll numbers obtained by international media (Peruvian law prohibits the publication of polls within the country a week before voting) show right-wing lawmaker Keiko Fujimori, the daughter of jailed former President Alberto Fujimori, has the best chance to face Humala in the June runoff. Fujimori benefits from die-hard supporters of her father—around 20 percent of the country—and her numbers have barely changed during the otherwise tumultuous campaign.
The majority of Peruvians believe Humala would roll back a decade of economic reforms most of them say they have personally benefitted from and also worry that tenuous advances in human rights would be undermined under a strong-arm Fujimori presidency.
But with no coherent party system to direct voters along ideological lines, moderate votes have been splintered between three candidates who represent a continuation of current policies: Former President Alejandro Toledo, three-time cabinet member Pedro Pablo Kuczynski, and, farther back in polls, former Lima Mayor Luis Castañeda.
Despite increasing pleas from alarmed voters for the three moderate candidates and the ruling Alianza Popular Revolucionaria Americana (American Revolutionary Popular Alliance, or APRA) party—whose candidate dropped out of the race—to reach an agreement, none of them showed any sign of backing out during their final campaign meetings.
Toledo, the architect of the FTA with the United States who comes from a poor Andean town and was long the front runner in the election, in particular is playing off the encroaching environment of fear. His tone has become increasingly threatening in the past weeks as he tells Peruvians democracy is in danger. Toledo says he has the best chance of defeating Humala in a second-round vote and he is the only candidate who has even support across all social classes and regions, but this week’s numbers show his battle cries are not working. After insulting his rivals during last Sunday’s debate, he addressed Kuczynski as “Mr. Kuczynski” in a bid to capitalize on the fact many Peruvians see the candidate as a foreigner, and adopting a patronizing tone toward Fujimori by referring to her as “papi,” Toledo is now ranking below Kuczynski, the prime minister during Toledo’s presidency, in several polls.
The numbers are still tight in a country where all 30 million citizens are required to vote, and where as many as 13 percent decide who to vote for in the ballot line. Peru’s electoral board will likely take days—perhaps weeks—to announce the official second-round contenders after Sunday’s vote. For moderate Peruvians, the clear majority, these will be days of anguish.
*Caroline Stauffer is a guest blogger to AQ Online. She is a Lima-based correspondent for Thomson Reuters and a former Americas Quarterly editorial associate.