Can New President Lead a Divided Peru?

Pedro Pablo Kuczynski (center) greets supporters after the presidential runoff election. Lima, Peru, June 5, 2016. (Manuel Medir/LatinContent/Getty Images)

Right-wing economist Pedro Pablo Kuczynski was elected Peru’s new president on June 5 after a dramatic runoff poll against Keiko Fujimori. The election was framed as a contest between supporters of democracy and those of authoritarianism and corruption. This included a large social movement against the legacy of Fujimori’s father Alberto, who served as president from 1990-2000 and was sentenced to 25 years in prison for human rights violations and corruption charges. But the result does little to satisfy concerns about the future political stability of the country, particularly as it struggles with the same economic woes seen elsewhere in Latin America.

Final results indicate that Kuczynski won by 42,597 votes—a mere 0.24% margin—after a bitter campaign in which Fujimori had steadily led in the polls until four days before the election. Her party, Popular Force, had already won the first electoral round, obtaining an absolute majority in Congress with 73 of 130 seats. Leftist alliance Inclusive Front became the first minority, winning 20 seats. Kuczynski’s Peruvians for Change came in third with only 18 seats. As a consequence, Popular Force will have ample powers to legislate, preside over the majority of congressional commissions, stall or pass legislative and policy initiatives from the executive, and even reform the constitution without the participation of other political forces. In a multiparty system with proportional representation, the other six political organizations that obtained representation in Congress will not be able to play a significant part in decision-making, and Popular Force will have no incentives to legislate over pressing social issues outside its agenda, such as women and LGTB rights, or the management of conflicts.

Several factors contributed to Kuczynski’s victory, most of which cannot be attributed to support for the new president’s own political and economic program. Instead, they relate to opposition to fujimorismo, the populist right-wing platform that formed around Alberto Fujimori in defense of his authoritarian government. Fujimoristas downplay crimes such as the death squads formed to exterminate political adversaries, Fujimori’s coup d’état in 1992, the embezzlement of millions of dollars, and the forced sterilization of hundreds of thousands of peasant women in the Andes. Despite the emergence of a new generation of fujimoristas led by Keiko Fujimori, who claim they are now a democratic force, opponents maintain they are the continuation of an autocratic and corrupt power structure.

The most notable factor in this electoral process was thus the reemergence of a social movement that from the first round questioned Popular Force’s democratic credentials and rallied against the return of fujimorismo to power, as protestors had also done in the 2011 presidential election. One of the major demands of this movement has been justice and reparation for the thousands of women subjected to the forced sterilizations.

Only five days before the election, at the time Kuczynski started his comeback in the polls, tens of thousands of people gathered for a street protest in Lima. This brought together a wide array of community organizations, thousands of people without affiliation, and some political and public opinion leaders who denounced the crimes of fujimorismo. This came in stark contrast with allegations that Popular Force had paid people to attend its own rallies.

A second contributing factor to the Kuczynski result was the consolidation of the image of fujimorismo as a movement with strong links to organized crime. Three weeks before the election, it was revealed that the United States Drug Enforcement Administration was investigating the secretary-general of Popular Force for money laundering. This added to accusations linking Kenji Fujimori, a reelected congressman and also the brother of Keiko Fujimori, to drug trafficking, and renewed public attention on the connections between Alberto Fujimori, his former advisor Vladimiro Montesinos, and drug cartels. Kuczynski pulled out this argument in the final presidential debate, abandoning his previous moderate stance to cite the need to “defend liberty and impede with our votes the return of dictatorship, corruption, and lies.” In the final days of the campaign, this accusation sharpened and emphasized that fujimorismo risked turning Peru into a “narco state.”

The fact that all former presidential candidates publicly stated they would never vote for Keiko Fujimori sealed the victory for Kuczynski, even if these individuals did not endorse him.

While neither of the two final candidates entered into any formal political alliances, both made public commitments to different organizations as part of their campaigns. Kuczynski signed an agreement with the Peruvian Central Workers Union, promising to raise the minimum wage and secure labor rights, and his second vice-presidential candidate Mercedes Araoz signed an agreement and promised civil reparations to the sterilization victims. In turn, Keiko Fujimori promised to formalize the operations of informal miners, despite strong evidence pointing to their negative social and environmental impacts. She also signed an agreement with an ultra-conservative religious group and promised not to pass a law that would allow the civil union of lesbians, gays, and transgender people.

Kuczynski collected just enough votes to win but with close to a 30% increase on the 21% of the ballot he obtained in the first round. Fujimori, on the other hand, increased her votes by just 10%. The final results show that Popular Force gained just one more region in the runoff, adding to its previous 14. In contrast, Peruvians for Change had won only one region in the first round, yet managed to pick up an additional 10 in the runoff, with votes that had previously gone to Inclusive Front in eight regions. It also gained two regions that Popular Force had previously won: Loreto and Lima.

The results ultimately leave the country sharply divided, with the fujimorista controlling Congress and the president only elected on the basis of being the “lesser evil.” It is a strange situation that Peruvians for Change and Popular Force have more of a common political platform than do the former and Inclusive Front, the leftist party whose votes helped Kuczynski win.

Peru’s new president will have the difficult task of governing without political allies and with weak social support. He will be in constant tension with a Congress majority that already sees its defeat as a mandate to serve as the political opposition. In the coming years, governing will be a matter of striking a delicate political balance, with a concern for pressing social demands, within a context of economic decline.

Carmen Ilizarbe is Professor of Political Science, Universidad Antonio Ruiz de Montoya, Perú.