Why Do Peruvians Hate Their First Lady?

Peruvians are much too obsessed with hating first lady Nadine Heredia. 
Michelle Obama doesn't look politically threatened, does she? Photographer: Saul LoebAFP/Getty Images

Peruvians are much too obsessed with hating first lady Nadine Heredia.

Her political detractors say she meddles so much in President Ollanta Humala's decisions that she has become the de facto co-president of Peru. Some regularly accuse her of being bossy and dangerous or a power-hungry Lady Macbeth.

But Heredia-hating went too far on Friday when most lawmakers initially abstained from supporting Humala's new cabinet, unless he confessed to his wife's palace intrigues. The president has defended his wife as a victim of a "disgusting campaign."

The tarring and feathering of Peru's first lady is a clear example of the petty, dysfunctional politics that have held back Peru for decades. The issue here isn't sexism; it's fear of a rising politician in a nation with weak institutions, where politics is dominated by charismatic leaders.

True, Heredia can be a politically threatening figure. She is young, well-educated, poised and telegenic in a country where personal charm -- more than other attributes -- can go a long way. Plus, she seems to have her husband's ear in the highest matters of state, and she has used this influence to considerable effect.

For instance, she publicly undermined Prime Minister Cesar Villanueva last month when she disputed his suggestion that the state was planning a minimum wage hike. He left the cabinet days later, blaming her for his departure.

More important, perhaps, she sometimes seems cavalier about flaunting that influence. The latest example came last week when she broke protocol by walking down a red carpet reserved for presidents only, apparently on purpose, before the swearing in of Chile's President-elect Michelle Bachelet. This is precisely the type of behavior that angers Peruvians who want respect for institutions in a nation that lacks them.

Heredia's perceived disregard for the chain of command, and her husband's reluctance to open up about the extent of her role in his administration, arguably weakens the institutions they both should work to strengthen.

Already, 62 percent of Peruvians are convinced that Heredia runs the country, according to a March poll by Pulso Peru. And 69 percent of those polled dislike her. This isn't good for Humala, who's approval rating has sunk to 24 percent.

But those who revile Heredia have an agenda, too. Many in Peruvian politics are distrustful of the president's leftist past, which he has since moved beyond. And they see Heredia as someone who could one day aspire to higher office, which would give Humala another go at the levers of power.

These concerns look overdone. The first lady has made clear she has no designs on the presidency, which she is barred from pursuing anyway because the constitution prohibits the president's immediate family from succeeding him. But she could run for congress in the 2016 election, and even aim for a presidential run in the 2021 elections, when she would be only 44 years old. This may be what scares Humala's foes most of all.

Amid this politic intrigue, the country's economic performance has been enviable. Since Humala took over in 2011, Peru's economy has had growth of 5 percent or more (Moody's forecast a 5.6 percent gain this year), inflation of less than 1 percent and a business-friendly government that attracts foreign investment. Not bad for a man who was once thought of as the next Hugo Chavez. If Heredia played even a minor part in these results, hats off to her.

Yet, demonizing Heredia as power-obsessed and Humala as henpecked may make a certain amount of sense for the opposition as a strategy in regional and municipal elections slated for October.

But Peru has more important problems to worry about than a Type-A first lady. It is a nation where more than one in four people still live in poverty, where institutions are weak and where political dissent often devolves into bouts of stone-throwing protests.

The best first ladies are often the ones that do more than sit next to their president-husbands for the photo op. Peruvians need to get over Heredia and devote their energy to fostering the strong political institutions the country now lacks.

(Raul Gallegos is a contributor to Bloomberg View. Follow him on Twitter @raulgallegos.)

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.