March 19 (Bloomberg) -- President Ollanta Humala was in Qatar wrapping up an eight-day visit to the Middle East when his wife, Nadine Heredia, delivered a lethal blow to his fourth cabinet chief in 2 1/2 years.
At the inauguration of an event on health reform in Lima Feb. 20, Heredia told reporters the government wasn’t considering an increase to the country’s minimum wage, contradicting Humala’s then cabinet chief and official spokesman, Cesar Villanueva. Upon Humala’s return to Lima on Feb. 23, Villanueva resigned.
“She beheaded the cabinet chief by correcting him in public,” said Henry Pease, a former president of Congress who now heads the school of government and public policy at the Pontificia Universidad Catolica del Peru in Lima. “The first lady has no right to speak on behalf of the government because she’s not part of the government. She went too far.”
The perceived interference of Heredia, a 37-year-old co-founder of the ruling Nationalist party, led opposition lawmakers to block a vote of confidence in the cabinet on March 14, prompting ministers to offer their resignation. The cabinet was approved March 17 after Cabinet Chief Rene Cornejo pledged to ensure their decision making process would be protected from outsiders. The political tension comes as copper prices tumble and inflation accelerates, hurting business sentiment.
“Women elected to office in Peru are scrutinized more and are expected to be better than men, but the first lady wasn’t elected,” said Maria Remy, a sociologist at the Institute of Peruvian Studies. “This crisis and the decline in her popularity must make her realize that these types of interventions aren’t helping her consolidate her political career as president of the party.”
Her role in government decisions is seen as negative by 66 percent of 1,206 people polled from March 11-14 by Ipsos Peru. The survey shows support for Humala dropped to a record 25 percent from 33 percent in February and 53 percent a year earlier. Heredia’s rating fell to 27 percent from 40 percent in February and 60 percent a year ago. The poll has an error margin of plus or minus 2.8 percentage points.
The frequency of Heredia’s public appearances has fueled speculation among Peruvians that she may run for the presidency, even as the electoral law bars the first lady from succeeding her husband. A January poll by Ipsos shows 60 percent expect Heredia will run for the highest office in 2016, even as she denies the plan.
Telephone calls to the president and first lady’s offices weren’t returned.
Humala’s drop in popularity comes as Peru grows at the slowest pace since 2009 amid a decline in copper prices, which fell to their lowest in almost four years last week. Gross domestic product in the world’s biggest producer of the metal after Chile and China expanded 5.3 percent last year.
“For a president elected on hopes of a firm hand to combat crime and terrorism, it’s going to hurt his popularity if it becomes evident in public that his spouse has a much greater involvement than she should officially,” said Hernan Chaparro, managing director of Lima-based public opinion research company GFK Peru. “It undermines the president’s authority.”
The sol has fallen 7.8 percent in the past year. The price on the country’s sol-denominated bonds due in 2020 gained 0.103 centimo to 110.859 centimos per sol at 1:38 p.m. in Lima while the yield fell two basis points to 5.78%, according to prices compiled by Bloomberg.
A smiling, silent observer when with Humala in public, Heredia rarely shies away from commenting on government matters and political developments when accompanying health, education, social inclusion or women’s affairs ministers to events.
On April 30, Heredia told reporters the state oil company wouldn’t purchase Repsol SA’s local refinery if it wasn’t beneficial for the country, easing concerns Humala planned to buy the plant and increase government control of the industry.
Her ability to overshadow ministers in public reflects her influence in private, according to Oscar Valdes, who served as cabinet chief for seven months ending July 2012 and says he barred ministers from discussing government matters with Heredia.
“She’s the spouse of the president and sometimes power is dazzling and leads to mistakes,” Valdes said in a phone interview. “In her effort to help the president and transmit his thinking she usurps these functions, and that’s not right.”
At times, the criticism of Heredia goes over the top, appearing to be politically motivated, said Pease.
Carlos Tapia, a former adviser of Humala, and Luis Gonzales Posada, president of Congress during the previous government, said Heredia broke with protocol when she walked down the red carpet with her husband as they stepped off the plane in Chile last week, ahead of the swearing-in ceremony of President Michelle Bachelet.
Lima-based Correo newspaper and Trujillo-based La Industria said Heredia barged past Chilean officials trying to stop her.
When Angelica Rivera, the wife of Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto, accompanied him on the red carpet, Mexico’s media said nothing.
Speaking in Ica, Peru on March 12, Humala denounced an “abusive, gross campaign” against his wife. Political opponents “want to create the idea she doesn’t have the right to express her opinion, or state the position of the government party,” he said.
Heredia’s election in December to replace Humala as president of the Nationalist party made her the official spokesman for the governing party. Opposition parties see Heredia as a threat to their ambitions to take power in the 2016 presidential and parliamentary elections and have mounted a “demolition campaign” against her, said Daniel Abugattas, a Nationalist party legislator and former president of Congress.
“The idea is to try to create a sensation or perception of permanent misgovernment,” Abugattas said by phone from Lima. “Opposition parties are terrified of Nadine Heredia as she’s a political figure who can consolidate the presence of the parliamentary party in 2016.”
Members of the Peru’s trade union confederation, the CGTP, marched to Congress Feb. 27 to demand an increase in the minimum wage and protest Humala’s decision last month to double the salaries of his ministers and other senior public officials. Some carried a banner mocking Heredia’s perceived dominance of the new cabinet.
Heredia isn’t the only first lady to have courted controversy by steering policy decisions and pursuing their own political aspirations. Hillary Clinton led Bill Clinton’s effort to introduce universal health care and is the only first lady to have run for office in the U.S.
Susana Higuchi’s ambitions to succeed her then husband Alberto Fujimori as Peru’s president were halted by a law he introduced in 1994 barring the leader’s immediate family from seeking office. In Argentina, Eva Peron ran ministries during her husband’s government and in 1949 founded her own political party.
Heredia denied for the first time in July last year that she would run for president in 2016 and since then has scaled back her appearances at events in Lima and the hinterland.
“It’s not politically intelligent for her to be showing off,” said Cecilia Blume, chief adviser to the cabinet chief’s office during the government of Alejandro Toledo. “It’s a macho country and people don’t like it. All this goes against her and her husband, and the institutionality of the country.”
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