Familiar face. Maybe too familiar.

Photographer: Cris Bouroncle/AFP/Getty Images

Peru's Presidential Train Wreck

Mac Margolis writes about Latin America for Bloomberg View. He was a reporter for Newsweek and is the author of “The Last New World: The Conquest of the Amazon Frontier.”
Read More.
a | A

Seen from a distance, Peru is a Latin American dynamo. Its economy has been surging since the early 2000s and investment has been rebounding. Its universal health-care program has won accolades, and the number of those living in poverty fell 32 percent between 2001 and 2014.

So why is the April 10 presidential election turning into such a fiasco? It's not just the heated partisan fray, which kicked off with 19 candidates vying for votes. Earlier this month, electoral authorities disqualified two of the leading contenders for alleged campaign irregularities -- rulings that have tipped the race in favor of a controversial front-runner and sent protesters to the streets.

Safeguarding against electoral shenanigans and vote buying is laudable. But to ban two competitive candidates -- one on apparent technicalities -- on the eve of the vote is asking for trouble. Not least because it leaves current front-runner Keiko Fujimori, the daughter of a jailed former president who herself was recently cleared of campaign-related charges, without rivals and has put a cloud over the legitimacy of the election itself.

The Organization of American States expressed its concern over how the eleventh-hour disqualifications could proscribe the rights of the candidates to appeal. And investigative journalist Gustavo Gorriti called the ruling to exclude former Inter-American Development Bank economist Julio Guzman "preemptive fraud."

Sensible economics, dysfunctional politics: Such is the dilemma of Peru's democracy. Lost on no one is the fact that only twice before has one democratically elected leader transferred power to another in Peru. True, the military has shown no appetite for returning to power, nor apparently is a messianic caudillo -- or populist autocrat -- waiting in the wings. But the political turmoil shows that the consolidation of a rules-based democracy in Peru is still a long way off.

"If you look at the scandals taking place around Latin America, what's going on in Peru doesn't draw much attention," said Simon Whistler of the Washington-based consultancy Control Risks. "But the elections could be an early symptom of troubled institutions, and that's something to watch out for."

Peruvians have a low regard for their governing authorities. Only 8 percent said they feel represented by their legislature, the lowest score in Latin America, according to a 2015 survey by Latinobarometro. Another poll in December found that just 9 percent of Peruvians believe the judicial system works well.

The best news may be that Peruvians appear unwilling to settle for the political status quo. As the presidential campaign approaches its end, hardly a day goes by without protesters filling the public squares over one outrage or another; even the past is fair game for discontents.

Last year, women in the capital, Lima, smeared their thighs in red paint to protest reports of "forced sterilization" of peasant women under former president and Keiko's father Alberto Fujimori, who ruled from 1990 to 2000. Those allegations resurfaced this week when a physician admitted to taking part in the government's draconian campaign.

It's not just Peru's ghosts that are raising hackles. Although Fujimori, a hard-line autocrat, left power 16 years ago and is now serving a 25-year jail sentence for human-rights abuses and corruption, he looms large over this election. Keiko also served alongside him as Peru's first lady during his first mandate -- a bond that fuels fears that, if elected, she might pardon him and even rehabilitate him as an eminence grise.

Celebrated Peruvian novelist and Nobel laureate Mario Vargas Llosa, who ran for president and lost to Alberto Fujimori in 1990, called the prospect of the return of a Fujimori to office "troubling."

To her credit, Keiko has denied any plan to pardon her father (although her opponents note she earlier criticized sitting President Ollanta Humala for failing to do so in 2013), and no one has accused her of scheming to revive a dictatorship. She has, however, exalted her father's successes in crushing guerrilla insurgents and restoring economic stability. That part of her father's otherwise divisive legacy -- Fujimorism, as Peruvians call it -- has played well with her supporters, but it's no guarantee of victory.

Decades of misrule by autocrats and profligates appear to have cauterized Peruvians against the worst political adventures. That may explain why voters are likely to hedge their bets in the first round of balloting and push the convoluted presidential race to a runoff in June, in which Fujimori could face far stiffer competition. If, that is, the country's mercurial electoral authorities stop mucking around.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Mac Margolis at mmargolis14@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Brooke Sample at bsample1@bloomberg.net