At stake in Peru’s elections

June 2, 2011

Jason Netek looks at the issues at play in this weekend's presidential vote in Peru.

ON JUNE 5, Peruvians will go to the polls for a run-off election that will decide the presidency. The choice between the two candidates left after the first round, Keiko Fujimori and Ollanta Humala, is being painted as a contest for the nation's future between the far right and far left--and the two are running neck and neck in opinion polls.

Keiko Fujimori is the daughter of imprisoned former President Alberto Fujimori, who can be credited with such achievements as seizing power in a coup, sponsoring death squads, presiding over the forced sterilization of indigenous women, and carrying out any number of other abuses of power.

His reelection to a third term was followed by seven weeks of democracy demonstrations outside the presidential palace. Further scandals led him to attempt resignation, but the Peruvian congress didn't accept. Instead, he was officially removed from office in November 2000 and barred from politics for a decade. The next president, Alejandro Toledo, headed up the charge to indict Fujimori for corruption, kidnapping and murder.

Ollanta Humala
Ollanta Humala

Concerns about having inherited her father's propensity for such abuses of power aside, Keiko Fujimori stands as a defender of the neoliberal policies that her father implemented, including a mass privatization drive. Eleven years after Fujimori's downfall, these methods have failed to produce any benefit for the masses of Peruvians. As a congresswoman in a country with a high level of poverty and desperation, Keiko Fujimori is running on her record of authoring a series of "tough-on-crime" bills.

During her term in Peru's congress, Fujimori opposed the centrist government of Alan García and the American Popular Revolutionary Alliance (APRA). García oversaw a pro-corporate administration whose record earned him the scorn of Peru's working class. His term in office was marked by national strikes in numerous industries and deadly clashes between indigenous people and police over traditional lands turned over to multinational corporations for development.

The APRA seems to have finally recognized the popular mood this election cycle--it isn't running a candidate for president. The party's record in power shows it to be about as socialist as ex-International Monetary Fund chief Dominque Strauss-Kahn. But Fujimori's opposition to the APRA came from the right, not the left. As president, she would stand out as being merely more business-friendly and pro-Washington than her predecessor.

THE OTHER contender for the presidency is also a well-known political figure. Ollanta Humala is an ex-army officer who has run on a populist campaign, promising a bigger share of the national wealth for the poor.

Like Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez, Humala once led a failed military rising against a thoroughly corrupt and autocratic government. Also like Chávez, he founded a new political party and ran against the long established political elites. Once elected to office, he might, like Chávez, develop a more independent national agenda than the U.S. government would prefer.

In addition to his own Nationalist Party, the electoral coalition Gana Peru (Peru Wins) that Humala leads includes a number of left parties. The combination of the Peruvian Communist Party, Socialist Party, Revolutionary Socialist Party and Political Movement Socialist Voice certainly gives a far-left coloring to the coalition. Gana Peru's political platform includes support for full sexual and reproductive rights for women; access to family planning methods, including oral emergency contraceptives; legalization of abortion; and opposition to discrimination based on sexual orientation.

The fear of Peru's elites is that he will also guide the country into a Bolivarian-style "revolution," complete with large-scale nationalizations and sweeping changes to state institutions.

But for his part, Humala considers himself to be "neither left nor right," but simply "nationalist. Despite the hue and cry about an impending assault on the wealthy, concerns of Humala taking a Chávez-style approach to the economy are unfounded. Humala contends he has no desire to "nationalize anything," nor to interfere with Peru's "successful economic model" in any way. Any suggestions to the contrary are, according to Humala, slanders concocted by his opponents.

Such statements should alarm anyone concerned about the fact that more than one in three Peruvians live below the official poverty line. Humala may intend to wrangle a better deal for the millions of impoverished Peruvians but he will be hard-pressed to do so if he remains committed to Peru's economic model and the neoliberal trade agreements it is founded on.

Despite media claims to the contrary, Humala supports the idea of a "national market economy." While a defense of Peru's national sovereignty against foreign corporations will certainly earn Humala disdain in the respectable elite circles he hopes to not offend, the defense of homegrown capital should earn him equal disdain from the working classes, who remain exploited no matter what country their bosses hail from.

Latin America has a long history of nationalist politicians who found themselves unable to appease either the wealthy or the poor.

As the saying goes, "a friend to all is a friend to none," and Ollanta Humala does not need to look so far back as the overthrow of Chile's socialist President Salvadore Allende--overthrown in a 1973 coup--to see the dangers of attempting to straddle two mighty and opposed social forces. He would do just as well to heed the lesson currently being taught to Bolivian President Evo Morales, who has alternately faced attacks by the country's right wing opposed to his social programs and a challenge from militant workers opposed to his attempts to cut state subsidies to fuel.

RECENT UNREST in Peru's southeastern region of Puno provides further evidence of this dynamic. The indigenous Aynmara community is battling a Canadian mining company over competing claims to the use of the land.

Vancouver-based Bear Creek Corp. has a contract with the Peruvian government to mine for silver. It maintains that it will bring prosperity to the region. But the Aynmara community has a lack of faith in the ability of the multinational to do more than pollute.

In order to protect their traditional lands, the Aynmara have staged demonstrations of upwards of 10,000 strong, blockading the airport, railroad lines and roads into the regional capital. In a single night, crowds of indignant protestors ransacked three government offices and set fire to the local customs office.

As of May 31, leaders of the movement called for a halt to the demonstrations until three days after the June 5 election. Puno is seen as a Humala stronghold, and residents of the region no doubt hope to see the victory of a man who presented himself as an advocate for those left behind by neoliberalism.

In fact, both Fujimori and Humala have said they intend to raise taxes on mining companies. The real question is what the social benefit will be.

Mining conflicts are nothing new in Peru. In April, clashes between police and demonstrators against the Mexican company Southern Copper left several dead and dozens more seriously injured. Many Peruvians will undoubtedly go to the polls thinking as much about these two opposing sides as they do about the two candidates.

In the event of a Fujimori victory, the ruling class of Peru will feel confident in its program of poverty for the masses and luxury for itself. But if Humala wins, the elite will likely pursue its agenda no less vigorously.

In either case, the crucial factor in post-election Peru will be the people themselves. The election of Ollanta Humala would likely be an advance in moving the terms of the official debate to the left--and Humala might feel under pressure from his base of support to deliver on his talk of social reform.

But all the contradictions of capitalism will remain, now presided over by a man who claims to be a populist. The need for working people to mobilize and organize will not change.

Further Reading

From the archives