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Left prevails

by Eva-Maria Verfürth

Opinion

The future president of Peru, Ollanta Humala, jubilant after the announcement of first election projections

The future president of Peru, Ollanta Humala, jubilant after the announcement of first election projections

Peru’s presidential elections polarised the country, but in the end people voted for social reform. If the new president is successful, he could not only unite his country, but even its region. By Eva-Maria Verfürth

It sometimes seems as if Latin American politics was mostly about extremes. Since the re-election of rabidly leftist Hugo Chávez in Venezuela in 2006, many presidential elections were head-to-head races of totally contrarian candidates. That same year, the nationalist leftist Ollanta Humala was defeated by his rather conservative opponent Alan García in Peru.

Peru was exposed to another highly emotive political soap opera staring Humala this year. Because the moderate centre had been unable to agree on a presidential candidate in the first round, the run-off saw a left-winger fight a right-winger. This time, Humala’s opponent was Keiko Fujimori, the daughter of Alberto Fujimori, a former authoritarian ruler who is in prison after being found guilty of serious human-rights violations and corruption.

The two candidates had one thing in common: their past pretty much rules them out for democratic office. Humala is a former military man who is said to have supported coup attempts. Keiko Fujimori, on the other hand, seemed to be her still influential father’s puppet and denied his crimes. No doubt, she would have pardoned him if she had prevailed in the elections.

Humala won with a narrow majority of around 51 % of the votes. The result was probably more a rejection of the Fujimoris than an endorsement of the left-wing candidate. The people voted against forgetting the past and impunity. This result sends an important signal to all of Latin America, where many countries struggle to come to terms with strife-torn histories.

At the end of the campaign, both candidates tried to convince the centrist voters. Even Fujimori was suddenly in favour of social reforms. Unlike last time, Humala did not name Venezuela as his inspiration. Instead, he praised the Brazilian model of re­conciling social justice with a good investment climate. He wanted to win over voters who feared he might jeopardise economic success. Peru has recently recorded the region’s strongest economic growth.

Humala will not have an easy time in office. Yes, the annual growth rate of eight per cent is high, but so is the poverty rate of 34 %. The stock market registered heavy losses after his election with investors harbouring doubts about the president-elect.

Humala has changed his views too often for anyone to say with certainty what course he will pursue in office. His voters – in particular the rural poor – demand social change. His narrow victory, however, makes radical decisions unlikely. He does not command a parliamentary majority, so he will need allies and cannot dis­gruntle the middle and upper classes.

His first steps after being elected were prudent. He pledged to initiate legislation to raise the minimum wage immediately after taking office on 28 July, thus proving to his voters that he is reform minded. His first official trip, however, took him to Brazil, reassuring industry leaders. According to the pollster Ipsos Apoyo, more than 70 % of the electorate approved of him two weeks after the run off, and confidence was growing in the business community too.

Humala’s attempts to improve relations with his country’s neighbours also look promising. He wants to strengthen the somewhat shaky Community of An­dean States (CAN) and has even reached out to the rather unpopular neighbour Chile. More regional trade would boost Peru’s economy of course.

If Humala stays moderate in office, he may not only unite his country, but even his region. At the moment, countries as different as Bolivia, Brazil, Venezuela and the USA are on his side. If he acts wisely, Peru could become yet another country in which social reforms do not undermine economic success.

There is no guarantee that he will succeed, however. He already triggered controversy by musing about reunification with Bolivia and demanding that the country get access to the Pacific. This stance ­irritates Chile, as there is a long standing dispute between Chile and Bolivia on the matter. It remains to be seen how Humala proceeds. He could, for example, grant ­Bolivia better access to the sea via the Peruvian coast.