The first round of voting in Peru’s presidential election ended in the result that many commentators had long predicted: a run-off vote between two familiar faces in Peruvian politics: Keiko Fujimori and Pedro Pablo Kuczynski. While the final result may have been foreseeable, the events leading up to it – which included the questionable exclusion of two candidates, the (possible) return of the left, a transnational protest movement, and a significant intervention from a prison cell – were a constant source of surprise.
The result itself saw the established front-runner, Keiko Fujimori, garner 40 per cent of the vote, insufficient to avoid a run-off contest. Keiko is of course the daughter of disgraced former President Alberto Fujimori, for whom she acted as First Lady in the 1990s. Keiko ran for the presidency herself in 2011, losing out to incumbent Ollanta Humala in a run-off. The runner-up with 21 per cent was former World Bank economist Pedro Pablo Kuczynski, another who also ran in 2011. Kuczynski, or ‘PPK’ as he is known, served as both prime minister and Minister of Economy and Finance in the government of President Alejandro Toledo.
The result, however, is only one part of the story of this election. David Doyle has written previously in this blog about the controversy over alleged plagiarism involving a leading candidate in the election, Cesar Acuña. In the end, Peru’s national elections committee did disqualify Acuña, but on the basis of breaching a law that outlaws the making of payments in return for votes, a charge the Alliance for Progress candidate denies. A similar allegation against Keiko Fujimori for handing out prizes at a dance competition was not upheld, however.
Even more controversial was the subsequent removal of another candidate, Julio Guzman, this time due to technical irregularities in the registration of his candidacy. The dubious exclusion of Guzman – a former Inter-American Development Bank economist who had risen to second in the polls – attracted widespread international condemnation. Nevertheless, appeals by both Acuña and Guzman proved fruitless, leading The Economist to describe the electoral process as a “dangerous farce”.
The logical beneficiary of the exclusion of Guzman, was his fellow economist Kuczynski. Indeed polling in the immediate aftermath of the decision indicated that PPK had increased his vote share by over ten per cent, pushing him into second place. Rather than build on this stroke of luck, Kuczynski’s numbers stalled, then declined. While this may be explained to some degree by what is viewed as a lacklustre campaign, it also highlights a recurring trend in Peruvian politics: the desire for change.
An opinion poll carried out by the Catholic University’s Institute of Public Opinion (IOP) on the eve of the election demonstrates that the clamour for alternatives not only remained strong but even grew since 2011. According to the survey, 76 per cent of the electorate favour a change to the prevailing neoliberal economic model. Of those, 40 per cent desire “radical changes”, up from 33 per cent in 2011. Furthermore, the same poll indicates that 52 per cent of Peruvians favour increased state intervention, a ten per cent increase from five years earlier.
This data must be considered in the wider regional context. Scholars of Latin American populism have identified certain permissive conditions for its emergence, among them a weak, inchoate political party system, and an absence of faith in political institutions. A further contributory factor, according to Barr, is the location of a candidate with regard to the political establishment.[i] These candidates are typically referred to as ‘outsiders’, but may also be described as ‘populist’ or ‘anti-establishment’.
Peruvian politics appears to meet the criteria for the emergence of outsider candidates. While there is widespread distrust in politicians and political parties across Latin America[ii], Peru routinely achieves among the lowest rankings in the region. Furthermore, as scholars such as John Crabtree, Steven Levitsky and Maxwell Cameron have written, Peru’s party system is particularly weak and fragmented[iii].
In other words, political space exists for a candidate from outside the establishment to tap into the strong public desire for change. Both Acuña and Guzman succeeded in capturing this support, albeit briefly, before their respective exclusions. Their absence opened up the field for other candidates in the same mould. In the case of this election, that meant Alfredo Barnechea and, in particular, Veronika Mendoza.
Elected to Congress in 2011 for Humala’s ‘Peru Wins’ party, Mendoza broke away in 2012 due to opposition to the government’s stance on mining. Peru’s economy depends disproportionately on its mineral wealth, and the mining lobby exerts significant political influence. Mendoza helped form a leftist party, the Broad Front, which campaigned on a platform of social reform, and increased State control over natural resources. Analysts, however, gave Mendoza little chance of success, with polls conducted a month before the election giving her little over seven per cent support.
The situation changed dramatically in the weeks before the election. While Mendoza undoubtedly benefited from the exclusion of Acuña and Guzman, her rise arguably owed more to the effectiveness of her campaign, which contrasted with that of Kuczynski. Taking a leaf from the populist playbook, Mendoza criss-crossed the country holding rallies and personally connecting with voters. Mendoza’s discourse, however, was far from populist, as she maintained a coherent left-wing message. This was allied to a moderate public persona, even in the face of media attacks[iv].
Despite having all of the momentum in the last weeks of the campaign, Mendoza ultimately fell short, receiving 19 per cent of the vote. This can be explained by a number of factors, all of which are recurring themes in Peruvian politics. The first concerns the role of the media, which many on the left in particular consider guilty of right-wing bias. While the control of over 80 per cent of all media by the ‘El Comercio’ group of companies is startling, in the particular context of this election it appears that other factors were more significant.
One such factor is the long-standing issue of divisions within the Peruvian left.[v] The presence on the ballot of the imprisoned candidate of the Direct Democracy party, Gregorio Santos, was especially important. Santos, the former Regional President of the Cajamarca region and anti-mining activist held under preventative detention relating to corruption charges, made a dramatic contribution to the presidential debate from his prison cell. The four percentage points garnered by Santos – had they gone instead to Mendoza – would have been sufficient to edge out Kuczynski.
The remaining factor that militated against Mendoza was the strong strain in Peruvian politics of ‘anti-fujimorismo’ (opposition to Fujimori). The legacy of Fujimori Senior continues to divide Peruvian society, in spite of his ongoing incarceration for a combination of human rights violations and embezzlement.
The run-up to this election saw a series of protests, culminating on the 5th of April with tens of thousands proclaiming ‘Keiko no va!’ (Keiko no way!) in rallies across Peru, as well as in Paris, New York, Rio and Buenos Aires. Kuczynski, aided by polls that named him as the candidate most likely to defeat Keiko in a run-off, appears to have benefited from tactical anti-Fujimori voting, gaining around eight percentage points in the last days of the campaign.
What does all of this mean for the run-off vote, scheduled to take place on the 5th of June? Much will depend on which candidate will be able to attract the mix of left-wing and anti-establishment votes that went to Mendoza, Barnechea and Santos. This will not be easy for either candidate, both of whom are closely associated with not only with neoliberal economic policies, but also the political establishment.
Fujimori is the obvious favourite, having received almost twice as many votes as Kuczynski. Furthermore, Keiko appears to have learned lessons from her failed campaign in 2011. Beginning with a speech at Harvard University in October 2015, Keiko has distanced herself from the “errors” of her father’s regime, and vowed to respect democracy. She has dispensed with several members of her party with close associations to that time, such as Martha Chavez, and pledged not to pardon Fujimori Senior if elected president. We can expect more in way of such moderation in the coming months. Whether it will be enough to convince a further ten per cent of the electorate remains to be seen.
The challenge for Kuczynski is significantly greater, and not only mathematically. Like Keiko, PPK has also been attempting to right the wrongs of his last campaign, appearing in the media to talk up his ‘socialist’ credentials. Kuczynski’s status as the clear preference of powerful business interests, however, will not help him to convince voters that he will bring about fundamental changes.
Instead Kuczynski’s best bet would appear to be to present himself as the ‘non-Fujimori’ candidate. This may well be sufficient to swing the election his way, provided he can avoid glaring gaffes. It would be a considerable boon to Kuczynski if he could bring on board at least some elements of the left. The candidate himself appears to recognize this, as within days of the first round vote Kuczynski had announced plans to meet with Santos.
Nevertheless, Kuczynski faces an uphill battle. A national survey carried out by the IOP in March indicates that crime is overwhelmingly the most pressing issue for citizens across the social spectrum. While the name ‘Alberto Fujimori’ may hold a variety of mainly negative connotations for social scientists, for many ordinary Peruvians it is synonymous with law and order, a factor which may well give his daughter the edge in June.
[i] See Barr, 2009. “Populists, outsiders and anti-establishment politics.” Party Politics Vol. 15.1.
[ii] See Latinobarómetro Report, 2015.
[iii] See Crabtree, 2010. “Democracy without parties? Some lessons from Peru.” Journal of Latin American Studies Vol. 42.2; Levitsky & Cameron, 2003. “Democracy without parties? Political parties and regime change in Fujimori’s Peru.” Latin American Politics and Society Vol. 45.3.
[iv] Mendoza’s dignified but ruthless decimation of television pundit Aldo Mariátegui particularly stands out.
[v] See Tanaka, 2008. “The Left in Peru: Plenty of Wagons and No Locomotion”, in Jorge G. Castañeda and Marco A. Morales, eds. Leftovers: Tales of the two Latin American lefts.
Chris O’Connell is a PhD candidate in politics at Dublin City University, where he has lectured on Latin American politics. He holds a BCL from University College Cork, and an MA in Development from DCU. Currently he is writing his doctoral thesis on the influence of civil society on populist presidents in Bolivia, Ecuador and Peru. His research interests centre on the politics of development in Latin America.