How Did the Candidates With the Highest Negative Ratings Advance in the Peru Presidential Elections?

Cross-posted from Peru Elections 2011, a Tumblr site of the WOLA Electoral Observation Delegation.

One day after Peru’s elections for president and congress, all indications are that Ollanta Humala and Keiko Fujimori will compete in the June 5 run-off. The question on many people’s minds is why these two candidates made it into the second round, given that they had the highest negative ratings of the leading candidates. Polls prior to Sunday’s election revealed that over 50% of the population said that they would never vote for either candidate. As we’ve noted in previous posts, in Humala’s case, one key factor is that he was the only candidate to offer an alternative to the existing economic model, in a country where a significant portion of the population has not benefited from years of steady economic growth.

More surprising is that the daughter of a former president who fled the country in disgrace after a ten-year regime marred by massive corruption, abuse of power and human rights violations could be this close to the presidency just 11 years later. Moreover, Keiko Fujimori ran on a platform invoking the legacy of her father’s government. Ironically, at her post-election rally Sunday night, supporters did not yell her name, but rather “Chino, Chino, Chino”—a popular nickname for her father. As we noted in our post from Villa El Salvador on election day, some voters supported her precisely because her father’s government “defeated terrorism” and dispensed concrete benefits, such as food, to the rural and urban poor and carried out public work projects in some of the poorest areas of the country. It is important to note, however, that she only increased her traditional base of support by a few percentage points. Her second-place victory is due more the fragmented political field.

Another key factor that has received scant attention is the role of President Alan Garcia. As one person told us, the newspaper headlines today should have been, “Gracias President Garcia.” He explained, “Garcia is responsible for this. He left us Fujimori in 1990 and he could leave us another Fujimori in 2011.” In his five years in government, Garcia has repeatedly allied himself with the Fujimori coalition, he said, “without asking them to account for what they did in the past.” Garcia abandoned efforts to root out official corruption and ensure accountability for those responsible for human rights violations. In short, he legitimized the Fujimoristas. At the same time, none of the other presidential candidates challenged Keiko Fujimori strongly or consistently about her father’s government and its extremely negative impact on Peruvian democracy.

The other major question is how the second round will shake out. It is not a question of simple math. Because voter allegiances are very weak, endorsements by other candidates may not have as much impact as expected. Much depends on the extent to which Humala can strike alliances, primarily with Toledismo, as well as the extent which Keiko Fujimori can convince those who did not vote for her that her government would represent their interests. Another key factor is the extent to which the right will be able mobilize the “fear factor,” invoking the threat that Humala allegedly represents for Peru’s economic stability and his relations with Hugo Chavez.

In the end, many voters will vote in opposition to one candidate or the other, rather than for a candidate they believe strongly in. Humala’s fear factor will weigh heavily with some. But as others told us, “We have doubts about Humala, but we know for certain what we get with Keiko Fujimori.”

Coletta A. Youngers is the Latin America Regional Associate with the International Drug Policy Consortium and a Senior Fellow at the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA). Jo-Marie Burt is an Associate Professor at George Mason University and also a WOLA Senior Fellow.