From a field of five candidates competing in the first round of Peru’s presidential race in the beginning of April, two emerged as frontrunners: nationalist Army officer Ollanta Humala and former president Alberto Fujimoris’ daughter, Keiko Fujimori. Peruvian Nobel Prize winner Mario Vargas Llosa initially declared that the second round on June 5 would be like choosing between AIDS and terminal cancer. But then he changed his mind.
The famous writer and former presidential candidate confessed that in spite of its wariness of Humalas leftist agenda and possible authoritarian tendencies, he would finally support him. He could not resign himself to vote for Keiko: It would amount to legitimating the worst dictatorship we’ve suffered during our history as a republic, he said.
Running as a political outsider, Alberto Fujimori defeated Vargas Llosa in the 1990 presidential election. In 1992, with the support of the Peruvian military, he dissolved congress and the courts, justifying his illegal seizure of power by the need to fight a brutal Maoist insurgency, the Shining Path.
After winning reelection in 1995 with an overwhelming majority, Fujimori was eventually undermined by the egregious mix of human rights abuses and rampant corruption that characterized his reign. He fled to Japan in 2000 after a bribery scandal involving his Machiavellian intelligence chief Vladimiro Montesinos and is currently serving a 25-year sentence in a Peruvian jail for various crimes committed during his presidency. Many suspect that his daughter plans to pardon him if elected, but she denies it.
As for Ollanta Humala, his background makes many people jittery. His father Isaac is a former communist activist who baptized all his sons with Inca names and advocates a disturbing mix of extreme nationalism, anti-imperialism, militarism and racialist fantasies laced with venomous anti-Chilean and anti-Semitic rhetoric. He declared once that pitucos (white-skinned upper-class Peruvians) and homosexuals should be executed.
The presidential candidate’s brother Antauro, now in jail for his responsibility in a failed armed uprising in the provincial town of Andahuaylas in 2004, is the main leader of the political movement inspired by his father’s ideas. Ollanta was also a member of this rather bizarre organization, but for many years he has been distancing himself from his family’s antics.
Already a contender in the 2006 presidential election, his supposed affinity with Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez probably cost him the victory. Now advised by Brazilian electoral consultants, he claims that his model is Lula Da Silva and that he wants to conciliate economic growth and social justice. Peru has one of the fastest-growing economies in the region, healthy international reserves and record high exports, but this commodity-based prosperity has not trickled down to the majority of poor Peruvians, especially in the Andean hinterland.
The truth is that nobody knows what Ollanta Humala will really do once in power. Some think his purported alienation from his brother Antauro is just a diabolic ploy concocted between the two of them. Once elected, they say, Ollanta will show his true colors.
More realistically, some analysts see in Humala a pragmatic politician without real convictions who might evolve like former Ecuadorian President Lucio Gutirrez. Elected in November 2002 on a radical anti-neoliberal platform and allied with various leftwing parties and movements, this rebel Army colonel soon converted himself in a faithful promoter of the Washington consensus in the neighboring Andean republic (he was eventually overthrown by a popular rebellion in 2005).
Finally, others are rather ambivalent about his Brazilian connections: they may be good for his democratic credentials, but they could also translate in an excess of economic influence by a very powerful neighbor who considers Peru as its natural port on the Pacific.
The disenfranchised indigenous and mestizo majority, especially outside Lima, will divide their vote between Keiko and Humala with a clear advantage to the latter, who symbolizes new hopes and is not handicapped by a controversial balance sheet in power.
Among the middle classes and the elite, the frightened arch-conservatives and the voters most committed to an orthodox market agenda will opt for Keiko. Those who neither forget nor forgive Alberto Fujimori’s dictatorial experiment, as well as those hoping for a measure of social redistribution with a considerable overlap between the two sectors, will probably agree with Harvard political scientist Steven Levitsky, presently teaching in Lima’s Catholic University: We may have doubts about Humala, but about Keiko, we have proof.
If Humala wins in June as polls suggest, it will be thanks to a majority of voters who are not 100% sure about his promises of social justice and democratic governance. But after all, willing to experiment change without giving a blank check to its promoters is not the worst thing that can happen to Peru.
Globalization might already sound like a stale catchword, but the new interconnected reality it describes still has surprising tricks up its sleeves. So what do you do when you’re a leftish French writer born in Africa and living in South America, with a background in Slavic Studies, a worried fascination for emerging Asian powers, and interests ranging from classical political philosophy to Bollywood film music? Read, travel, wonder. And send scattered dispatches from modernity’s frontlines.
Marc Saint-Upéry is a French journalist and political analyst living in Ecuador since 1998. He writes about political philosophy, international relations and development issues for various French and Latin American publications and in the international magazines Le Monde Diplomatique and Nueva Sociedad. He is the author of El Sueño de Bolívar: El Desafío de las izquierdas Sudamericanas (Bolivar’s Dream: the Left’s challenge in South America).