Peru’s 2016 Elections: Will Old-timers Retain the Lead?

By Cynthia McClintock*

Photo Credit: A.Davey / Flickr / Creative Commons

Photo Credit: A.Davey / Flickr / Creative Commons

The big surprise of Peru’s presidential campaign – for elections about four months from now – is that there have been no surprises.  All three frontrunners in the April 10 first round are old-timers, not newcomers or outsiders.  Although Peru’s political parties are among the weakest in Latin America, two of the three lead institutionalized parties.  Further, in a country where the winners since 2001 have been roughly at the center-left of the ideological spectrum, all three of the current leaders are at the right or center-right.

Two main explanations for this emerge:

  • One is that Peruvian voters are reacting against the administration of incumbent Ollanta Humala. A former military officer, Humala burst into Peru’s electoral arena as a fiery leftist outsider in 2006 and won a plurality in the first round but lost the runoff.  For the 2011 election, he moderated his positions considerably and prevailed.  But his political party has remained inchoate and, in part as a result, Humala is now perceived as opportunistic and weak.  Humala has delivered on promises of social inclusion to a degree, but economic growth has stalled – so Peruvians may now be reasoning that it is time to prioritize growth.
  • Probably more likely, however, is that it is yet early in Peru’s presidential campaign. Even as late as three months before elections, Peru’s opinion polls are often very wrong, almost always exaggerating the support for rightist candidates.  In January 1990, Mario Vargas Llosa was leading with 53 percent, compared to 15 percent for his nearest rival, but lost the runoff in a landslide.  Lourdes Flores was leading in January 2006, and Alejandro Toledo in January 2011, but neither even reached the runoff.

The current three front-runners have strengths, but also liabilities.

  • The candidate who has topped the opinion polls for more than a year is Keiko Fujimori. She is the daughter of Alberto Fujimori who, despite conviction on charges of human rights violations and corruption, retains support as the president who presided over the decimation of the Shining Path insurgency.  Her “Fujimorista Party” has a fervent base in both urban and rural areas.  Keiko was the runner-up in Peru’s 2011 election, but she struggled to achieve a balance between respect for her father and distance from his abuses.  She is likely to have the same challenge in 2016.
  • Currently second in the polls with roughly 22 percent is Pedro Pablo Kucznyski. He can take credit for excellent economic growth during the Toledo administration (2001-2006), when he was economics minister and prime minister, and there are no corruption charges against him despite many years in government.  In 2011, he ran an excellent campaign and finished third.  But he will be 77 next year, and he has many U.S. business connections (and until now a U.S. passport), which could hurt him.
  • Running third with about 10 percent is Alan García, the long-standing leader of Peru’s most-institutionalized party, APRA (American Popular Revolutionary Alliance). García is a brilliant campaign strategist, and he can cite superb economic growth during his 2006-2011 presidential term.  However, he is also widely perceived as Peru’s most corrupt political leader.

Surprises are inherently impossible to predict – but not impossible to imagine.  Peru’s left is divided and poorly financed, and its heyday has probably passed, but the candidate nominated a few weeks ago by the Broad Front, Verónika Mendoza, a congresswoman from Cusco and psychologist who studied in France, has the potential to appeal to diverse sectors of Peruvians.  As in many Latin American countries, corruption scandals are at the forefront in Peru, and a candidate who has participated in successful anti-corruption efforts – but whose name doesn’t occupy headlines – could emerge and turn the race upside down.

November 5, 2015

* Cynthia McClintock is Professor of Political Science and International Affairs at George Washington University.

Peru: Humala’s Difficult Balancing Act

Photo: Peruvian mine | Mihai (clandestino_20) | Flickr | Creative Commons

Peru’s new cabinet installed in July – President Ollanta Humala’s third since his inauguration a year earlier – faces the daunting task of sustaining national development while increasing social enfranchisement.  The reshuffle came amid loud criticism of a crackdown, which killed five people, on protests against the proposed $5 billion Conga mining project in Cajamarca.  The incident underscored the difficulty for Humala as he endeavors to implement a dual strategy of capitalizing on the growth potential of Peru’s mining industry – primarily gold and copper (60 percent of exports) – while respecting community concerns about the environmental consequences of extraction.  Mining wealth is needed to improve the lives of ordinary people –28 percent of Peruvians live in poverty – but unlike preceding governments this administration has committed itself to consultation with residents of localities that will be affected directly.    The new prime minister has announced suspension of the Conga project until the U.S. mining company involved provides better environmental guarantees.

Humala’s popularity has plummeted.  Despite new laws increasing Peru’s mining revenue, the creation of a new Ministry of Social Inclusion, and a new Prior Consultation Law, indigenous protesters feel betrayed by Humala.  They accuse him of continuing the aggressive extractive policies of his predecessor, Alán García, and insist his administration has not given adequate attention to concerns of local communities on issues such as the integrity of the water supply in zones affected by the mining ventures.  Recent signs of a resurgence in violence by the Sendero Luminoso (Shining Path) guerrillas and of setbacks in efforts to curtail the influence of the narcotics trade are also eroding Humala’s support.

Humala narrowly won the presidency as a center-left candidate, committed to creating a framework for the more equitable distribution of the wealth generated by Peru’s natural resources.  Now, some of his political allies say he has courted foreign investment for the mining sector without adequate consultation, and further protests seem likely.  Humala’s challenge is not unlike that of other countries, including Bolivia and Ecuador, trying to balance between these competing interests.  His success or failure will have an impact beyond Peru’s borders, as South American countries dependent on commodity exports struggle to walk the tightrope between satisfying foreign investors and domestic electorates.