Peru faces a choice between the hard right and far left

Peru's 2011 Presidential election represents the ultimate in political polarisation, writes Left Foot Forward's Chris Tarquini from Lima.

With all the talk of unrest amid the cuts in the United Kingdom one might think that political polarisation at home is at an all time high. However in a region that is renowned for its political instability a true battle between the authoritarian right and the populist left of the political spectrum is under-way.

Peru is a country that does not hold a particularly strong democratic history, however the upcoming run-off between former army officer and leftist Ollanta Humala and the daughter of disgraced former President Alberto Fujimori, Keiko Fujimori, has caught the attention of countries throughout the world.

Similar to the French Presidential electoral system, Peru has a first round of voting (although only five candidates are permitted to stand) where if there is no outright winner gaining over 50 per cent of the vote, the two highest go through to a run off. The decisive final round takes place on Sunday.

Rarely in modern politics does one find such politically diverse opponents, particularly in Western democracies where major parties scramble to be presented as representing the ‘middle ground’. However in Peru despite attempts to do just that by both candidates, it is clear that they are worlds apart.

With former President Alejandro Toledo’s slump in the polls, and the stuttering candidacy of both his past economics minister Pedro Pablo Kuczynski and former mayor of Lima Luis Castaneda, what could be considered a ‘middle ground’ (despite accusation of the corporatist nature of particularly Kuczynski’s past) has been split between their considerable number of supporters and paved the way for the rise of Ollanta and Keiko.

Despite polling very high poll numbers early on, Toledo’s dilution of his social and economic justice message gave room for Ollanta to flank him from the left and build on his considerable support amongst indigenous and poorer voters.

Unlike his younger opponent, the run-off is not a new experience for Ollanta, who lost to sitting President Alan Garcia 53% – 47% in 2006, a result seen as a huge blow to Venezuela President Hugo Chavez who caused diplomatic uprorar by openly supporting Ollanta.

Ollanta himself is no stranger to controversy and is often accused of using overblown, bombastic language, however it was his actions in 2000 that make the contest so compelling. In the dying days of Alberto Fujimor’s candidacy, Ollanta led a short-lived, bloodless and ultimately unsuccesful revolution attempt against the disgraced President.

After its failure he went into hiding until Fujimori was removed from office soon after and imprisoned for corruption and human Rights violations, including creating ‘death squads’. An official pardon for Ollanta followed soon after.

Aside from the history between Ollanta and the Keiko family, much of the challenge is for Ollanta to try and capture the above mentioned middle ground. While promising an improved minimum wage as well as free nursery and public education, Ollanta has also attempted to shed his firebrand rhetoric while campaigning on an anti-corruption platform.

This could be a strong approach in a country which was ranked 78th out of 178 countries in the global corruption index of Transparency International, tied with the likes of China and Lesotho.

However despite his change of tone there remains massive doubts about Ollantas’ dedication to genuine free-market economics, with fears that if elected he may pursue policies similar to that of outspoken left-wing Venezuelan President and Ollanta supporter Hugo Chavez. This is an accusation mentioned repeatedly by Keiko, who has expressed concerns mass-nationalisation could cripple Peru’s strong economic growth, averaging 7 per cent per annum over the past five years, hitting almost 10 per cent in 2010.

While there are huge concerns over Ollanta’s potential economic policy the divisive history of the Fujimori family means that Keiko is anything but the ‘safe candidate’.

Despite promising some progressive concessions similar to the policies of Ollanta, Keiko has focused strongly on growth and jobs in a country that on its current course and with its huge range of raw materials, could become a regional powerhouse in the near future.

Despite promising to be her own women, Keiko’s campaign and congressional slate have a number of her father’s former cabinet ministers and friends working and running on it, leaving opponents arguing her father would be the power behind the presidency, either calling shots from behind bars or potentially being the recipient of a Keiko presidential pardon.

While many Peruvians admire the older Fujimori for his successful campaign against the insurgent ‘Shining Path’ Group and taming hyper-inflation others see him as both corrupt and dangerous.

Much of Keiko’s support comes from her family name, as does her opposition. Despite this polarisation many of her recent adverts have featured her father in them, so clearly she does not believe him to be a net negative, particularly as she has still failed to acknowledge human rights violations on his part.

Despite not being in a previous run-off like her opponent, Keiko is no stranger to historic situations. After her father stripped his estranged wife of the title in 1994, Keiko was named the youngest first lady in Peruvian or modern Latin American history in 1994. Furthermore if she is elected she will be the first female President to have taken office in Peru’s fragile democracy.

In a clear nod to the west and big Business, Keiko has enlisted the help of former mayor of New York and 2008 Republican Presidencial primary candidate Rudy Guiliani to both appear with her on the campaign trail and advise her on crime policy. Guiliani is of course famous for his ‘zero-tolerance’ approach to crime in New York during his tenure in office.

Ollanta also seems to be taking note of political ideas from abroad, copying the political positioning used by outgoing Brazilian President Lula in his successful campaigns, even using advisers from Lula’s Workers’ party.

Despite polling 28.06% to Keiko’s 22.49% in the first round of voting in Peru and holding early polling advantages in the run off, Ollanta has fallen behind in the latest polls 43% to 39%. While concerns have been raised over media attacks on Ollanta (with only a few major media outlets supporting his candidacy) the former army officer will have to overcome these problems as well as his leftist image to defeat Keiko, who must be careful that blind allegiance to her father’s record continues to help and not hurt her.

Nobel literature laureate Mario Vargas Llosa described the Humala-Fujimori runoff as “a choice between AIDS and terminal cancer”, complaining about their percieved but unproven anti-democratic tendencies. Despite this extreme comparison the writer has admitted he will be voting for Ollanta ‘unhappily, and with fear’ because Keiko Fujimori presented an even graver threat to democracy, provoking a storm of controversy.

Fears and questions from both sides are undoubtedly legitimate. Will Keiko be the bigger threat to democracy, releasing her father and his political allies who were tried fairly in a court of law and are accused of a number of human rights violations? Does she truly believe in democracy, unlike her father?

In contrast will Ollanta destroy a potential bright-spot in a weakened world economy? Will he condem the country to a Chavesque big-government state that goes against the free-market concensus established in Peru? Perhaps upon reaching office both candidates will take a moderate course, but for the people of Peru the future is uncertain.

One thing is for sure, the next few days could shape the countries destiny for decades to come.

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