In Peru, Voters Express Discontent by Backing Extreme Candidates, Analysts Say

BY Larisa Epatko  April 11, 2011 at 2:55 PM EST


Presidential candidate Ollanta Humala (Cris Bouroncle/AFP/Getty Images)

No matter what happens in Peru’s presidential runoff in June, change is coming. Judging from partial results from Sunday’s first round of voting, the top two candidates represent a departure from current leaders and policies that some say helped maintain the country’s economic growth.

No candidate in Sunday’s elections received more than 50 percent of the vote to avoid a runoff. With about 75 percent of the ballots counted, a face-off is expected between left-leaning former army Lt. Col. Ollanta Humala and right-leaning Congresswoman Keiko Fujimori, daughter of jailed former President Alberto Fujimori.

In 2006, Humala made it to the second round but ultimately lost to incumbent President Alan Garcia, who is barred from running for a consecutive five-year term.

As a top exporter of copper, gold and silver, Peru’s economy has bloomed over the past decade, and the World Bank estimates an economic growth of 7 percent this year. But many of those who live below the poverty line — about one-third of the country’s 30 million population — are not feeling the effects of the economic boom, said Dennis Jett, ambassador to Peru from 1996-99 and now a professor of international affairs at Penn State’s School of International Affairs.

“Despite the fact that Peru has had a decade of healthy economic growth and low inflation, they don’t feel it,” said Jett. “They look at it in very practical terms. They say is there meat in my soup and if there is not, then they’re willing to throw out the president and move on to the next one.”

Voting is obligatory in Peru until age 70, and those dissatisfied with the current administration voted for candidates who represented a departure from current political and economic policies, he said.

Humala is considered the anti-systemic candidate, said Fabiola Cordova, program officer for Latin America and the Caribbean at the National Endowment for Democracy. His proposed changes to the economic model include renegotiating contracts with foreign extractive industries and possibly nationalizing the country’s resources.

Fujimori, on the other hand, represents a throwback to her father’s presidency, which was marked by law and order efforts and cracking down on terrorist cells, said Jett.

Her father, Alberto Fujimori, is serving a 25-year prison sentence for corruption and authorizing death-squad killings during his term.

From outside of Peru, “it’s a very unsettling scenario because there are very many questions about the democratic credentials of both candidates,” Cordova said.

Inside Peru, it’s a familiar cycle of presidents coming in with high popularity and when they show they can’t impact the lives of the poor, they lose popularity over time, explained Jett.

“I think the challenge for a president is to make those people on the lower end of the economic scale feel like the government is working for them,” so they don’t opt instead for the extreme candidates, he said.

Although Humala took a lead in the first round, the results of the June 5 runoff are still a toss-up, depending on the votes of the supporters of candidates who did not make the runoff, said Cordova.

“It’s going to be interesting to see which of the two candidates will seem less threatening to the majority of the electorate that wants to maintain the levels of economic prosperity and democratic consolidation that Peru has been experiencing over the last decade, while also addressing some of the very legitimate social issues that rural voters are bringing to the political agenda,” she said.

In March 2010, NewsHour senior correspondent Ray Suarez traveled to Peru and reported on its economic rebound:

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