Analysis: Peru's bad choices


A small girl rides piggy-back during a rally for presidential candidate Ollanta Humala in Lima on April 10, 2011.


Cris Bouroncle

Peru’s presidential election could deal a new blow to Latin America’s fading brand of leftist populism. 

The runoff on Sunday between leftist nationalist Ollanta Humala and right-wing legislator Keiko Fujimori could determine if the centrist and market-oriented policies of the current government will continue.

With solid business support, Fujimori is most likely to carry on the present growth-focused model. Humala, who has made an effort to move from hard left to center, has failed to persuade many Peruvians that he doesn’t pose a threat to the nation’s thriving economy.

Polls show the race in a dead heat. Fujimori held a narrow lead of 46.6 percent to Humala’s 42.5 percent in a poll released last weekend.

The choice between Humala and Fujimori is far from simple. It’s not just right against left, or pro-market against populist policies.

Humala, 48, a former army officer who ran for the presidency in 2006, has been accused of human rights violations and was linked to a 2005 military uprising led by his brother against then-President Alejandro Toledo. Many Peruvians distrust his promises of democratic rule and believe he would destroy the economy.

For her part, Keiko Fujimori, 36, is saddled with the legacy of her father, former President Alberto Fujimori, whose presidency ended in disgrace.

Peru’s Nobel literary laureate, Mario Vargas Llosa, described the Humala-Fujimori choice as between “terminal cancer and AIDS.”

The stakes couldn’t be higher for Peru, which has been growing at a turbo-charged average rate of more than 7 percent a year, the highest rate in Latin America. While the poverty rate has dropped to 34 percent from 50 percent, there remain glaring discrepancies between rich and poor, as is the case in much of Latin America. Social reforms are lagging, and corruption, rising crime and growing drug trafficking compound the problems.

Reflecting the swings in recent polls, Peru’s stock market surged last week as traders bet on Fujimori, but it dropped in the past few days as traders feared that Humala would win. Investors worry that Humala would roll back the free-market reforms that have made Peru one of the world’s fastest-growing economies and that he would pursue policies that hinder foreign investment in industries like mining and energy.

History and notoriety play a big role in this election. Fujimori’s father, who was forced to resign and fled to exile in Japan, is serving a 25-year sentence in a Peruvian prison for human rights abuses and corruption during his 10-year presidency. Her mother, Susana Higuchi, has said that scars on her neck are the result of torture she underwent at the hands of Fujimori’s intelligence agents after Higuchi accused her husband of corruption. 

After her parents’ divorce, Keiko served as her father’s first lady, assuming a high-profile role at the age of 19. Even now, she defends her father’s record, calling him Peru’s greatest president, and enjoys a substantial base of support that credits him with laying the ground for Peru’s economic boom and defeating the Maoist Shining Path guerrillas.

While her father’s legacy cuts both ways, Fujimori has gained the support of the corporate and business communities who believe she will push free-market policies and uphold trade deals and encourage more foreign investment. She has vowed to defend human rights and has backed away from an early statement that she would release her father from prison.

Beyond all that, she stands to make history as the first female president of Peru and one of a handful of female leaders in Latin America. A role model for young Peruvian women, she has enlisted their strong backing. It is the female vote that seems to give her the edge in this race with women favoring her over Humala by 20 percentage points, according to a recent poll.

Still, Fujimori has not been able to close the deal with the voters. Leftist activists, many among the poor, and some prominent intellectuals like Vargas Llosa link her to her father’s poor human rights record and fear that she might weaken the country’s democracy and adopt her father’s authoritarian rule.

Others worry that she is too young and politically inexperienced to run the country. A congresswoman in Lima, Fujimori attended Boston University and Columbia University’s business school. She married Mark Villanella, a New Jersey native she met at Columbia, and has two daughters.

Humala’s rise to power has been no less complicated. A self-described nationalist, he has distanced himself from President Hugo Chavez of Venezuela and has sought the advice of moderate leftists like former President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva of Brazil and his successor Dilma Rousseff. As if to underscore his pro-democratic credentials, Humala has promised he would seek good relations with Washington.

But Humala’s radical tendencies, rogue military record and his stated plan to make changes to the country's constitution and trade deals are troubling to those who fear that he will erode the political and economic progress the country has made.

Some experts weigh Humala’s chances with some skepticism. They point at Chavez and his leftist allies — the Castro brothers in Cuba, Daniel Ortega in Nicaragua, Evo Morales in Bolivia, Rafael Correa in Ecuador — as having lost political ground in the hemisphere.

“I think the authoritarian left has been on the wane in Latin America in the last couple of years,” said Andres Martinez, a Latin America expert at the nonpartisan New America Foundation in Washington.

“The Castro-Chavez-Morales axis is so out of favor that Humala is running a very different campaign this time, trying to assuage people that he is more in the Lula-Rousseff mold than a Chavez acolyte.’’