Pragmatism, Not Chavez, to Dictate Peru Politics

(International Relations and Security Network, 09/01/2006)

With Julio Cirino in Buenos Aires


Peruvian polls revealed on 21 December that retired Lieutenant Colonel and Peruvian presidential candidate Ollanta Humala has over 20 per cent of support among Peruvian voters. As a presidential candidate and leader of an alliance between two Peruvian political parties - Unity for Peru (UPP) and the Peruvian Nationalist Party (PNP) - Humala has surged to his new heights from a lowly five percent voter approval rating from August to December last year.


Many are now worried that as president, Humala would fall into step with Venezuela's Hugo Chavez and march Peru down a path that takes the country far from Washington's sphere of influence, toward insecurity and economic ruin. But Humala must win the presidency first. If elected, pragmatism will dictate the direction Humala takes Peru, not Chavez.


Humala became relevant to Peruvian politics when he led some 70 soldiers and reservists in a brazen attempt to remove General Villanueva Ruesta from the head of the Peruvian Military in October 2000. He targeted then-Peruvian president Alberto Fujimori after General Ruesta was ironically sacked. Humala's coup attempt dwindled after weeks in the bush. He was never court-martialled, rather forced to retire. Now, after years abroad in Peruvian embassies in France and South Korea, Humala once again has become a Peruvian household name.


Polling companies in both Peru and abroad published results in late December indicating that Humala is now a presidential contender with a 23 per cent to 27 per cent approval rating among those Peruvians who intend to vote. With ratings close to front-runner and centrist candidate Loures Flores, Humala is now the man to watch. With less than four months to go before presidential elections, Flores seems to have run out of steam, while Humala is picking up momentum.


As president of Peru, Humala would usher in a new perspective and, perhaps, more progressive policies for security, foreign relations, and economy. If he is a pragmatic man, he will prove wrong the analysts that think he will side with Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, as his most recent trip to Venezuela indicates.


Humala looks to Chavez for support and some guidance. But if Humala follows Chavez's footsteps as president, he could very well lead Peru into an unstable economic and security situation that could quickly spiral out of control. But first, Humala has to win the elections, which is much more difficult than making a good showing in the polls in Peru.


Polling for the truth


Judging from the wide range of polls that were released in late December, Humala has taken a definitive second-place position behind Flores. The recent polls, however, have interviewed no more than a sample size of 2,000 voters. This small group, the surveys say, represent a population of over 16 million Peruvians. Few of these polls have ventured out of the greater-Lima area to interview Peruvians in the highlands, Amazon basin, or other corners of the country. Given these drawbacks, there are two polls worth a closer look.


Independent polling firm Apoyo, Opinion y Mercado Peru published results in late December that gave Humala a second-place slot after interviewing voters in Peru's urban areas across the country.

When those interviewed were asked who they would vote for in a second-round runoff between Flores and Humala, 50 per cent said they would vote for Flores and 32 per cent for Humala.


As president, Humala would be better prepared to combat corruption and increase security than Flores, according to Apoyo. These are two top campaign issues, given that current President Alejandro Toledo has failed on both counts.


Peruvian market research firm Datum International released a poll in late December that interviewed 1,114 voters in 12 Peruvian departments and over 80 provinces and districts in what is perhaps the most complete poll to date.


Datum analysts believe that Humala has begun to win votes that would have gone to former Peruvian president and current presidential candidate, Fujimori, who currently resides in a Chilean prison. Winning over the "fujimoristas" could translate to another two, maybe three, points in the final election.


Humala, Datum claims, is gaining on Flores by taking votes from her and other candidates because many Peruvian voters perceive him as an outsider and not part of the political establishment.

Datum concludes that Flores, Humala and third-place finisher Alan Garcia could all make it to the second round of elections, facing another vote in May.


Finally, the Datum poll indicates that only 48 per cent of the electorate has decided for whom it will vote. The remaining 52 per cent of voters is split into 40 per cent undecided and 10 per cent unsure if they will vote for any of the current candidates.


Humala's chances


According to Peru's National Identification Register, there are 16,446,738 Peruvians registered to vote. It is highly unlikely that every registered voter will actually cast a ballot. An estimated 40 per cent of Peruvian voters, or 6.5 million people, are still undecided, and active campaigning has only recently started.


Though the polls paint only part of the picture, what is more clear is that it is unlikely that one candidate will win over 50 per cent in the first round of elections. Furthermore, Humala will likely make it to the second round, where he will be forced to cut a deal or lose to Loures Flores.


Cutting a deal means making a compromise with third-place presidential candidate Alan Garcia, who represents the venerable American Popular Revolutionary Alliance (APRA) party, which is expected to do well in the Congressional elections, also scheduled for April. An alliance with Garcia could put Humala in the presidential chair, but at great risk of appearing to have sold out to the traditional political parties he is currently campaigning against.


Another consideration is the Peruvian military. Many of Peru's top brass at the rank of general consider Humala an undisciplined soldier and would not support his candidacy. Those military leaders on the next level down were all in the same military class as Humala, and very well may support him.


"Most of Humala's classmates are colonels and commanders, which means he would only have to remove the current generation of generals for his friends to become leaders in the military," Alejandro Sanchez, an analyst with the Council on Hemispheric Affairs (COHA), told ISN Security Watch.


Sanchez also pointed out a little known fact. Prior to this presidential election, Peruvian police and military were not allowed to vote because it was seen as positioning the security forces too close to politics. In this election, 134,192 military and police will be able to vote. Sanchez argues that each one of these votes represents up to three, maybe four, additional votes because households vote in blocks.


Upgrades for the Peruvian military and increased spending on national security speak to both members of the military and those Peruvians who want to believe that their president will work to increase security in the rural areas, especially in light of the comeback Peru's Shining Path insurgent group is making.


The Shining Path will become more of a campaign issue if the group chooses to stage more attacks on soldiers in the Peruvian high-country. These attacks draw attention to a need for greater security in Peru, as well as the lack of effective policy to deal with frustrated coca-leaf farmers.


COHA founder and director Larry Birns argues that Humala's recent surge in the polls indicates he has weeks to improve his position.


"Humala has a number of weeks [before the election]. Flores has nothing left to say on the issues," Birns told ISN Security Watch. "Humala does have growth potential largely because he's looked upon as the man of the hour, although people might be a little afraid to see that the small economic progress they've made to be jeopardized," he added.


If her campaign has peaked, and Humala is just now picking up steam, it is possible that a combination of stealing votes from Flores and Fujimori, as well as the military vote, would push Humala past Flores, perhaps even close to the 50 per cent mark.


Leftist vs. nationalist


Humala's proximity to power has given weight to the argument that South American politicians have found that a blend of socialism, populism, and nationalism does well in the polls. Bashing the US is very popular, as well. Many analysts argue that as Washington's sphere of influence dwindles in the region, South American countries will fall into the realm of influence of other countries, such as China, Russia, or Venezuela. They point to Bolivia's recent elections and conclude that one country already has fallen and Peru is next.


This argument is based in part on a set of poor policies from Washington. The lack of attention given to the region by the US administration of George Bush and the rigid positions on both trade negotiations and the drug war has created an anti-US atmosphere that is easily justifiable.


This argument, while grounded in the Bush administration's poor track record in South America, also draws conclusions based on more conjecture than fact.


The conclusion that South American leaders, elected on a populist platform, will completely abandon fiscal conservatism and ties with Washington, and set out on a new, uncharted and unstable path hand-in-hand with Chavez is popular among anti-Chavez alarmists. But it is a conclusion that has no evidence and is not founded by facts on public record.


Peruvian political scientist Dr. Jessica Smith Altamirano thinks there is truth to the claims that Humala is close to Chavez, but she looks beyond the election's outcome, noting that Humala's presidential candidacy is an important milestone in Peruvian politics.


"If he wins, there may be an increase in the alliance with Chavez and Morales," Altamirano told ISN Security Watch. "Whether or not he wins, his participation is an important turning point in Peruvian democracy, one that should not be ignored," she added.


Humala may side with Chavez to construct, with Bolivian president-elect Evo Morales, a block of anti-US countries in South America, but as president of Peru, he would be just as likely to accept a phone call from Bush as he would from Chavez.


If Humala is a pragmatic politician who wants to prove he can do a better job than Alejandro Toledo, he will abandon his strong rhetoric, focus on the Peruvian economy, and improve security in his country. To achieve these goals, he needs the support of regional leaders, such as Chavez, but he must also deal with Washington with pragmatism not conflict.


Policy that focuses on realigning Peruvian priorities in the "war on drugs" would be a good way to gain popularity at home while working with the US government to construct policies that would reduce drug trafficking in Peru - the country's number one threat to national security - without forcing coca-leaf growers deeper into poverty.


Hugging Chavez may help get Humala into office, but embracing Venezuela's autocrat will lead Humala - and Peru - down a path of ruin and instability. Humala is still a long way from the presidency, so he will do what it takes to get into office, for now. But if Humala is truly a nationalist and not a leftist, as he claims, he will do what is in the best interests of Peru, not Venezuela. He'll be sure to smile in the camera with Chavez but take care of Peruvian business at home.