Commentary: Peru: "None-of-the-Above" Is Running Strong

By Jane Holligan

There's a new joke making the rounds at cocktail parties in Lima. It goes like this: Presidential candidates Alejandro Toledo and Alan García are out together in a boat on a lake. Lightning strikes the fragile craft. Who is saved? Peru!

It's hard to know whether to laugh or cry. Still, the joke perfectly captures the climate of cynicism that reigns in this country six months after the abrupt departure of ex-president Alberto Fujimori. The latest surveys show that almost one-quarter of Peru's 14.9 million voters plan to register their displeasure with the choice of candidates by nullifying their ballots in a runoff presidential election tentatively set for June 3.

That means neither García, who nearly ran the country into the ground as President in the late 1980s, nor Toledo, who is dogged by allegations of personal misconduct, will walk away with a strong popular mandate. "I'm not going to vote for either," says Erica Flores, a 24-year-old print-shop worker who plans to cast a blank ballot. "I don't trust García because I saw the food lines and the terrorism during his government. Whatever he says, we have no proof he's changed." As for Toledo, "he says one thing, then another; it's not clear what he stands for," she says.

The June 3 contest ought to be the ideal opportunity to close a sorry chapter in the nation's history. Yet the irony is that the absent Fujimori and his fugitive spy chief, Vladimiro Montesinos, continue to dominate the election. Voters are still smarting over revelations that the decade-old Fujimori government operated like a corrupt mafia, bribing politicians, judges, and the media; trafficked in arms and sheltered drug dealers; and accumulated damaging files and videotapes on thousands of Peruvians. Until the public believes that politicians are capable of governing ethically, Peru will not be able to experience a democratic renaissance.

Indeed, voters believe members of the old regime are still powerful enough to disrupt the election. For instance, a bomb blast outside the Lima offices of the National Electoral Board on May 16 is suspected to be the work of one of Montesinos' henchmen. And Peruvians know that despite recent purges of military officers loyal to Montesinos, the army will remain a potential threat to any civilian government.

A growing number of Peruvians are also voicing their disappointment with the economic track record of the Fujimori regime. Free-market reforms have failed to translate into sustained growth. Part of the reason is that government policies favor investment in capital-intensive industries such as mining and oil while neglecting job-generating sectors like tourism and agriculture. The result: More than half of the population lives below the poverty line--around the same proportion as in 1990.

It's no wonder then that both presidential candidates are resorting to populist promises to curry favor with voters. Toledo has pledged to double teachers' salaries and create a $170 million-a-year jobs program. García says he'll force down electricity and telephone tariffs and reinstate the eight-hour workday. But more government intervention in the economy is not necessarily the answer to Peru's deep ills. Instead, the incoming administration would do better to use free-market tools to lure investment into underdeveloped sectors.

ANGER AND APATHY. Still, charting a new policy course could prove difficult. Neither Toledo's Peru Posible party nor García's APRA commands a majority in Congress. And crafting a stable coalition will be a challenge in a country where politics is highly personalized and parties are weak.

None of this seems to make much difference to Peruvians, many of whom have begun to search for a future elsewhere. "There's resignation, anger, desperation, apathy, all mixed up, and the message on the street is `get out,"' says Julio Cotler, a sociologist at the Institute of Peruvian Studies in Lima. Witness the long lines of visa-seekers that form each morning outside the foreign embassies. Unless the next President can convince Peruvians that politics do matter, they'll see no point in trying to save Peru. Better instead to save themselves.

Holligan cover Peruvian politics and business from Lima.

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