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The Pinball Of Peruvian Politics: A New President

August 6th, 2011 Leave a comment Go to comments

Every year, the Lima seafront becomes more Californian; not just the surfers hanging out in the Pacific breakers and paragliders spiralling around the cliffs, but the sense of affluence:  there are families strolling along the promenade after eating at one of Lima’s increasingly fashionable seafood restaurants and the shopping malls are full of  IPods, boutiques and tropical fruit flavoured ice cream.

But this is the first time I’ve been here when even the taxi drivers aren’t complaining. The Peruvian economy is booming, with a 7.1 percentage growth rate that European countries can only dream of; the Peruvian football team, serial underachievers, have done well in the Copa America, beating the old enemy, Chile, along the way. And they have been celebrating the centenary of the discovery of Machu Picchu, not only as the symbol of the country’s glorious Inca past, but because they finally managed to get back all the artefacts that American explorer Hiram Bingham took with him to Yale in 1911.

However, having told me all this, the taxi driver will then usually shrug and say “but now, quien sabe, who knows?’  For the recent elections have delivered a shock result that may take the pinball of Peruvian politics off in a completely new direction.

Presidential elections here are held in two rounds. The first vote narrows the field to the two best candidates; the next chooses between them.

This time there was a large initial field, with several candidates of the centre, one left-wing radical and one right-wing daughter of a previous quasi-dictator, Keiko Fujimori, whose father is still languishing in jail.  The inevitable happened. All the moderate candidates of the centre knocked each other out in the first round, leaving the electorate to choose between Keiko, whose unstated campaigning pledge was “vote for me, free my father”, and left-wing firebrand Ollanta Humala, who attempted a coup a few years ago and has been a close ally of that American nemesis, Hugo Chavez of Venezuela.

Lima’s middle-class were appalled. Noble laureate Mario Vargas Llosa made headlines by declaring  that it was like having to choose between having cancer and AIDS. Less controversially, former president Toledo, himself one of the moderates who had been knocked out, described it as a choice between a return to a ‘dark Fujimori past’ or leaping into an unknown void with Ollanta Humala.

In the end the Peruvians electorate decided to jump into the void. Humala put on a tie and started talking less about Hugo Chavez and more about Brazil, where President Lula has delivered an even more impressive economic performance from Peru. The strategy worked, and having been voted in, Ollanta Humala becames President at the end of July.

Ollanta Humala

What will he actually do? Much of Peru’s wealth stems from foreign mining companies, who have profited as commodity markets soar.  Humala’s support comes largely from outside Lima, where many in the countryside feel that this new wealth has not reached them; miners have been rioting on the border with Bolivia. And I’ve been to remote mountain communities where a vicious combination of deteriorating climate and poverty have left them vulnerable to increased infant mortality and bronchial infections, and problems with drinking water .  Some still use hand ploughs for a potato harvest that has become more and more irregular as the climate worsens.  Despite heavy government investment in new roads and communications – half the population now owns a mobile phone and you see them piled up in the markets in heaps, along with the peppers and tomatoes – there is still a sense of injustice felt against the blanquecitos, the white ones, in Lima.

Some of my Peruvian friends say Humala will have his work cut out. He has little experience of government and the media conglomerates of Lima are stacked against him. The Indians of the mountains expect him to deliver. And off in the wings, there is always the ghost of the Sendero Luminoso movement which so traumatised the country 20 years ago. The last time Peru was ruled by a left-wing soldier was in the 1970s, when General Velasco appropriated land, allied himself with Russia and left Peru in a turmoil which arguably allowed the Sendero to emerge.

Others argue that Peru is a very different place now. When I attended the centenary celebrations at Machu Picchu, with a spectacular show lighting up the monument after dark and a full orchestra playing, there was a sense of national pride and achievement.  The outgoing President, Alan Garcia, has delivered a platform of stability – perhaps it’s time that the results of that prosperity were shared out a little more equitably.

Whatever happens, Lima’s taxi drivers should probably start buckling their seat belts, which most don’t bother to wear:  it’s likely to be a bumpy ride.


a version of this was broadcast by the BBC for From Our Own Correspondent





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