New Peruvian President Humala’s First Challenge: a Polarized Peru

Cross-posted from the Tumblr site Peru Elections 2011.

With Ollanta Humala the virtual winner of Peru’s presidential elections, it is time to think about the very real challenges he faces as he prepares to take office on July 28, 2011.

Before analyzing the real policy and governance challenges facing Humala, we thought it important to examine an immediate challenge he faces: the need to calm the waters in Peru after a deeply polarizing political process that pitted his nationalist proposals against the more conservative program of Keiko Fujimori. It is important to remember that Humala and Fujimori were the two candidates that generated the highest degree of rejection among Peruvian voters on the eve of the first-round elections. In the second round, then, many voters found themselves forced to choose between the “lesser of two evils.” This resulted in a sharp and polarizing political process, which endured a grueling two months between the first and second rounds.

The polarization rippled through Peruvian society. Families were divided over which candidate to support. One middle-class lawyer told us that she supported Humala because she was vehemently opposed to a return to fujimorismo, but that the rest of her family supported Fujimori, and they implored her not to publish negative stories about Fujimori on her Facebook page. When she refused, her brother refused to speak to her.

More worrisome, the race and class-based divisions that are such a remarkable feature of Peruvian society came to the fore with a virulence not seen since the height of the internal armed conflict in Peru. This was seen in the media, with remarks with racist undertones or even overt racism were heard frequently. Aldo Mariategui, the director of the right-wing daily Correo, wrote in his column on the day before the elections warning that Humala would be a dangerous choice for Peru and implored his fellow citizens to vote for Fujimori in sharp, denigrating tones, “Peruvian, don’t be stupid at the voting booth tomorrow.” Fernando Szyszlo, the famous Peruvian painter, said that Peruvians faced an impossible choice in Sunday’s electoral contest. A triumph of Ollanta Humala, he said, “would be the triumph of the uneducated, of the ignorant, of those who do not know what is good for the country.” If Fujimori triumphed, he said, it would be “a victory for the corrupt.”

Peruvians concerned at the tone of racist remarks created a Facebook page called Democratic Shame in which people could denounce such behavior. Over 7,000 people have joined the page and have shared offensive remarks they have received or observed in the course of the campaign. One post read: “Shitty Indians!!! Only they could be so ignorant!!!” Another said: “Shitty Puneños… Die of cold, now let Ollanta send you clothes!” (Many people from Puno, especially children, have died due to extreme cold weather in Puno in recent years, and there have been frequent charity campaigns to prevent more deaths.) Ollanta Humala’s Facebook page was frequently intervened with racist comments and posts, also posted on Democratic Shame’s Facebook page. After the first-round vote, one Facebook user posted [sic]: “Shitty Indian, renounce your candidacy” while another said, in allusion to Humala’s supporters, “Son of a bitch, no one wants you, people who vote for people like you have know idea of what would happen if you become president, they are ignorant just like you…”

Peru is undoubtedly a society marked by deep racism. This was noted by Peru’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which identified long-standing racism and exclusion as the root cause of the violence that devastated Peru in the 1980s and part of the 1990s. The current climate of polarization is deeply informed by this racism and by the classism that accompanies it. Humala has promised a government of national unity that brings together the country’s diverse democratic sectors and that is open to the participation of Peruvian civil society. This is an important step in the right direction, but tackling the underlying classism and racism that reared its ugly head in this electoral process will require much more than that.