What takes seed as populism may well bloom as authoritarianism in Peru. The current frontrunner in today’s presidential election, a charismatic former military officer named Lt. Col. Ollanta Humala, has framed the contest not between political right and left, but between rich and poor. “We need to end the dictatorship of the rich and powerful,” said Col. Humala, according to the Financial Times. In its place, it would seem, the colonel wants to erect the kind of dictatorship that has become almost commonplace in South America — the dictatorship of the democratically elected populist.
The current Peruvian government, which has been marked by unpopularity, has pursued democracy, human rights and a market-oriented economy. Economic growth has been very healthy in recent years. The gross domestic product (GDP) increased by more than 6 percent last year, matching a trend that has made Peru’s GDP growth the second strongest in South America in the 1990s. With sound growth, decreasing fiscal debt, relatively low inflation and a promising free-trade agreement signed with the United States in December 2005, Peru seems like a country that would be economically content. Despite this progress, however, more than half of the country’s population lives in poverty.
Col. Humala is a self-proclaimed “anti-system” candidate, and is rightly characterized as authoritarian. In addition to reverting to the oppressive rule that Peru saw under Alberto Fujimori — who, as president, led a coup in 1992 — Col. Humala speaks of involving the state in the profitable mining and energy sectors, reneging on the free-trade agreement with the United States and legalizing coca production. His rhetoric and campaign promises have the all-too-familiar ring of a Latin American populist dictator, in the mold of Bolivian President Evo Morales, who promised during his campaign to be a nightmare for the United States, or the firebrand Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez — both of whom have strongly supported Col. Humala.
In contrast to Col. Humala, his primary challenger, Lourdes Flores Nano, follows the current government’s pro-business line, with respect for the market-oriented policies that have been responsible for Peru’s economic growth, but has attracted broader support with her concern for social issues, such as poverty. Her support is strongest in the capital, Lima, whereas Col. Humala’s popularity, as would be expected, is more prevalent in the poorer rural areas.
A March 22-24 poll shows Col. Humala’s support at 33 percent, with Miss Flores Nano losing ground but still running in second at 27 percent. Subsequent polls have confirmed Col. Humala’s lead over Miss Flores Nano. If neither candidate wins a majority of the vote today — the most likely scenario — a runoff election will be held May 7. (In a potential second round of the election, Miss Flores Nano would best Col. Humala, 53 percent to 47 percent; this is little reason for optimism, however, as current polls have changed dramatically in less than a month.) If Col. Humala wins, either today or in a runoff election in May, he, like Mr. Chavez, will have come to power democratically after failing to do so militarily.
Authoritarian leadership built on strong popular support is nothing new in Peru, and when Col. Humala declares “representative democracy is widely discredited,” according to the Financial Times, it sounds certain that he will bring back authoritarian rule. A Humala victory would be both a backward leap for Peru and further substantiation of a political trend away from liberal democracy in South America.