Polarized Peruvian Electorate Votes Today for President

By Jo-Marie Burt and Coletta A. Youngers

Left-wing candidate Ollanta Humala appears to have a slight edge as Peruvians vote today in the most hotly contested election in the nation’s history.  The final polls taken before today’s vote all show Humala overtaking Keiko Fujimori, who had been leading slightly, by 1 to 4 points, though given the margin of error most polls still show them in a statistical tie.  Humala has captured the vote of those who feel left out of Peru’s economic boon and want programs will go beyond handing out food aid, as Fujimori’s father did, to creating programs to generate jobs and improved quality of life, as Humala has promised to do.  However, the last minute surge in support may be more due to those who have been reluctant to endorse either candidate deciding that Humala is a better option than putting another Fujimori back in the presidential palace.

These elections have all the makings of a Gabriel Garcia Marquez novel.  It was just over ten years ago that Alberto Fujimori fled the country in disgrace after beginning an unconstitutional third term as president that provoked massive popular protest and amidst myriad corruption scandals.  Fujimori and his political allies literally stole billions from the country’s state coffers, institutionalized death squad activity, and subverted Peruvian democracy by taking control over virtually all state institutions.  Yet now his daughter Keiko Fujimori – surrounded by her father’s cronies – is within grasp of becoming president.  For his part, Ollanta Humala has a brother imprisoned for leading a revolt which he encouraged, led his own odd uprising against Fujimori and whose father espouses an ideology based on the racial superiority of Peru’s indigenous peoples.  A significant portion of each candidate’s votes are a negative vote – those who would never vote for the other candidate.

The ways in which these elections have played out illustrate the deep deficiencies that still plague democracy in Peru.  While during Alberto Fujimori’s reign, the Peruvian press was bribed or blackmailed into supporting his government, during this campaign much of the mainstream media – owned by powerful economic elites — has willingly supported the Fujimori campaign, shamelessly presenting campaign propaganda as news.  (Such blatant manipulation of the press may have backfired, however, if the most recent polls turn out to be an accurate indicator of the electoral results. Also sadly reminiscent of the Machiavellian tactics used by Alberto Fujimori, there are well-founded reports that the Peruvian intelligence services have worked in favor of her candidacy. 

The dirty tricks approach escalated as election day approached. In the last couple of days, a number of reports have emerged of a massive, coordinated disinformation campaign designed to discredit Ollanta Humala’s candidacy. IDL-Reporteros reported the creation of a false website, http://ollantaporperu.com on June 2, which seeks to associate Humala with socialism. This morning, the website states: “Peruvian comrades: Peru 2011: All power to the people! Humala President! By reason or by force: Ethnonationalism or death!” These messages seek to evoke an association between Ollanta Humala’s campaign and violent methods as well as the nationalist ideology of his father, which Humala has repeatedly and emphatically renounced.

Additionally, numerous people reported receiving phone calls, tweets, and facebook messages with similarly misleading and manipulative messages about Ollanta Humala. And IDL-Reporteros quoted actress Urpi Gibbons, who said that someone claiming to represent the “Inter-American Center for the Defense of Democracy” called her and said that they were conducting a poll about the elections. After asking who Gibbons was voting for, the caller then said: “I would like to know if you would like to have a president who will scare away foreign investors.” The caller then asked her if she knew that The Washington Post had published a report asserting that investors are pulling out of Peru, followed by the question: “Do you agree that the next government expel foreign investment, declares the United States an enemy, and nationalizes your property just as is currently occurring in Venezuela?” Dozens of other Peruvians denounced receiving similar phone calls. The messages are part of a broader, ongoing fear-mongering campaign that seek to associate Humala with Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez and assert that Humala will implement radical economic policies that will bring ruin to Peru’s economy.

Particularly disturbing is the extent to which this campaign has brought out the deep-rooted racism that still exists in Peru today and the acts of intolerance shown throughout the campaign. Facebook entries can result in a flurry of angry, foul attacks on the author; tweeting has become mean and nasty; and the name calling is often downright racist.  As journalist Pedro Salinas writes:  “This campaign has unmasked the true nature of a society marked by differences and discrimination. Social media have been inundated with offensive messages and insults that refer to the opponent’s skin color, their supposed ignorance and their uncivilized nature in order to disqualify them as Peruvian.”

Whoever wins today’s elections will inherit a country deeply divided and polarized.  Most immediately, emotions are running high and both candidates must ensure that their supporters do not engage in any form of violence.  In the longer term, these elections should serve as a wake-up call on the need for a serious process of societal reconciliation, the implementation of policies of inclusion rather than exclusion, and the strengthening of democratic values and institutions in Peru.


5 June 2011 ·

About Us

WOLA Peru Experts:

* Jo-Marie Burt, WOLA Senior Fellow and Associate Professor of Political Science at George Mason University. Ms. Burt is the author of Political Violence and the Authoritarian State in Peru (Palgrave Macmillan, 2007).

* Coletta Youngers, WOLA Senior Fellow. Ms. Youngers has lived in or worked on Peru since 1983 and is the author of Violencia Política y Sociedad Civil en el Perú (Instituto de Estudios Peruanos, 2003).

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