Why the Left Lost the Presidential Elections in Peru

Photo: Peruvian presidential candidate Keiko Fujimori.

Peru is one of the countries with a two-round presidential election. Unless one candidate obtains 50%+ on the first round, there is a second round with only the two candidates who had the most votes in the first round. And, as has been increasingly the case worldwide, when there are three candidates with significant support, there is a ferocious battle for second place on the first round of elections.

In Peru on April 10, 2016, the leading candidate was Keiko Fujimori, the daughter of the notorious former president Alberto Fujimori, presently imprisoned for human rights abuses. Definitive figures are not yet issued, but it seems she has about 40% of the votes. Second place was won by Pedro Pablo Kuczynski with probably 21%. Third place was occupied by Veronika Mendoza with about 19%.

What does this mean? A report by Reuters on the elections had a headline that summarized the views of most commentators: “Two pro-business candidates make Peru runoff.” The descriptive adjectives the media have been using about the three are “conservative” and “populist” for Fujimori, “center-right” for Kuczynski (who is a former World Bank economist), and “leftist” for Mendoza.

There seems virtually no difference between the two candidates in the runoff as far as priority to the so-called free market is concerned, and the stock market rewarded these commitments by an immediate jump after the first round. Their difference resides largely in Kuczynski’s more centrist views on social questions plus the fears that Fujimori arouses because of memories of her father’s authoritarian regime.

Turn the clock five years back to the previous election and the descriptive adjectives are quite different. The two candidates on the second round are again Fujimori (whose labels were the same) and Ollanta Humala who was said to be “left-leaning.” This label for him derives from the fact that, in still earlier times, he was endorsed by Hugo Chavez and seemed to many achavista.

Humala himself was sensitive to this charge and quite ostentatiously avowed being closer to Lula and the PT in Brazil than to Chavez. The truly conservative candidate Mario Vargas Llosa said that choosing between Fujimori and Humala was a choice between “AIDS and terminal cancer.” Nonetheless, he reluctantly endorsed Humala in the second round, deeming Fujimori the worst possible president.

Humala won the election very narrowly and promptly began moving to the right, opening Peru still further to the free market. He betrayed most of his promises, although he did make some improvements in the situation of the indigenous populations of Peru. In the current elections, Humala endorsed no one but certainly did not support Mendoza.

Flash back to 2006 and the descriptions are again different. It was a three-way race between Lourdes Flores Nano, said to be “conservative,” Humala described as a “staunch populist” and Alan Garcia who had been president previously (1985-1990) and who was the candidate of APRA (a party with long left-wing roots) and described in 2006 as “center-left.” Unlike 2016 where the second round is said to be a struggle between the populist right and the center-right, that of 2006 was said to be a struggle between the populist left and the center-left. Garcia won and again, once in office, moved steadily to the right.

Once again, go back to the previous election, that of 2002. It was witnessed by outside observers including Jimmy Carter and was said to be fair. It was won by Alejandro Toledo, a conservative but not a populist. The voters for third place center-right candidate Lourdes Flores seemed to throw their votes to Toledo rather than to Garcia.

That election took place after a long turmoil in Peru. In the 1980s in Peru, there were two guerilla uprisings of considerable severity. One was that of Sendero Luminoso, a self-proclaimed Maoist movement that succeeded in controlling various rural areas. It was led by Abimael Guzmán, previously a university professor in philosophy. Sendero used extreme violence against whomever they defined as being part of the political elites of Peru. The second movement, Movimiento Revolucionario Tupac Amaru (MRTA) was somewhat less violent and identified itself more with Cuba’s regime.

The struggle of the Peruvian government against these movements consumed their energies in the 1980s. In 1985, Alan Garcia of APRA was elected president. He was then a young star, and from APRA. He won the election easily against a “left” candidate, and received widespread endorsement throughout the world. Initially the economy took a positive upturn. But then he ran into difficulty both from the limits of his economic policies and the summit of guerilla strength. He went from a 90% popular approval level to 10-15%.

This was the context for the 1990 elections between Vargas Llosa running on a platform of neoliberal economics and the then obscure candidate of a populist and moderate coalition Fujimori, who was supposed to be unelectable. To great surprise, he won, and then to greater surprise he dissolved parliament in 1992 and undertook a vigorous and successful attempt to crush the guerilla movements, capturing the head of Sendero.

By 2001 he was so unpopular that he was threatened with impeachment. He escaped to Japan where he resumed his citizenship there. He was tried and convicted in absentia. In 1995, he went to Chile, assuming he would be safe there. But Chile extradited him to Peru, and he was then imprisoned, where he still is today.

All of this occurred in the context of one of the most radical regimes in recent Latin American history. On October 3, 1968, General Juan Velasco Alvarado, then Commander of the Armed Forces, led a bloodless coup against the then president Fernando Belaunde. Belaunde’s regime was beset by a scandal involving licenses to oil fields in northern Peru. Upon seizing power President of the Revolutionary Government of the Armed Forces, Velasco promptly nationalized the oil fields in question, to great internal applause.

Velasco pursued a program called Peruanismo and was considered “left-leaning.” In foreign policy, Velasco pulled away from ties to the United States and drew close to Cuba. Relations with Pinochet’s Chile were very strained. He undertook land reform and nationalized a number of industries. In reality however these economic efforts were not a great success. The agrarian and the fishing sectors ran into difficulty and the government ran into great debt. Inflation became hyperinflation and in 1975 there was a further military coup and Velasco was deposed.

And further back in Peru’s history there was the founding of APRA by José Carlos Mariategui in the 1920s as a Marxist movement committed to the rights of the indigenous communities. This radical program was miles apart from the program of his 1980s successor as head of APRA, Alan Garcia.

What we see in the continuing drama of Peruvian politics is that every time a so-called left or left-leaning government came to power, the regime soon thereafter moved to the right. Given Peru’s size, location, and economic importance, this has made Peru a prime battleground of Latin American politics. The story of each country has its particularities. But Peru’s history seems to embody the difficulties for the Latin American left. Why left regimes move rightward has long been a matter of debate in Latin America and throughout the world. But it has not been a matter of reunification and compromise among the left forces. In the coming decade, eyes will continue to be focused on the Peruvian left’s evolution in the worldwide struggle of the global left during the structural crisis of the modern world-system.