Peru held the first round of presidential elections this past Sunday. The leftist populist Ollanta Humala, with nearly 31 percent of the vote, will proceed to a second round in June. He will be joined by Keiko Fujimori, daughter of controversial former president Alberto Fujimori, who claimed about 19 percent of the votes.
I am no expert on Peruvian politics, but it certainly seems like most domestic and international observers are wary of these results. Humala, a former army officer, seems to have toned down his nationalist message since he lost the last presidential election in 2006 to the current president Alan Garcia. Optimists hope that he might go the way of Luiz Inacio “Lula” da Silva, the widely popular former president of Brazil, who moderated his rhetoric during successive failed runs at the presidency, and ultimately ran a fairly effective and pragmatic government.
Most of what I know about Humala’s main rival, Ms. Fujimori, suggests that she is an incompetent figure who has fed off her father’s lingering popularity and hopes to use the presidency to help resolve some of his legal problems, including charges of corruption and human rights violations. Neither candidate, in short, inspires any confidence that Peru’s next government will take the country in a positive direction.
The results of this election are, at first glance, quite puzzling. If elections simply came down to a matter of economic growth, Mr. Garcia and his market-friendly policies should be quite popular. In recent years, Peru’s economy has grown faster than any other in Latin America, not a small feat considering that the region as a whole is experience a dramatic resurgence. Unsurprisingly, not everyone has benefitted equally from this growth, but living standards for a fair number of poor people have improved. The national poverty rate fell a full 14% in just five years, from 49% in 2004 to 35% in 2009.
Brazil’s Lula, who has overseen similar but more modest statistical improvements in measures of economic well-being, is now heralded as a national hero. Garcia’s approval ratings, by contrast, are abysmal at just 26%. His weakened centrist party, APRA, did not field a candidate in Sunday’s elections.
So what went wrong for Mr. Garcia? In truth, one need not look very deeply to find flaws in Peru’s growth story. Median incomes may have shot up, but access to public services remains remarkably poor, even by Latin American standards. 17 percent of Peru’s population lacks access to running water, compared to just 7 percent in Colombia. Moreover, unlike Lula, Garcia did not direct public funding toward anti-poverty and welfare programs, instead focusing on growth-promoting expenditures like infrastructure projects.
Therefore, despite the Garcia government’s impressive poverty-reduction record, many poor Peruvians feel left out of the country’s recent progress. Adding to Garcia’s troubles, drug-related violence has increased significantly. In a recent article, The Economist summed up Garcia’s political misfortunes and the apparent success of Humala as “a lesson in what happens when economic growth is not backed up by more effective government, and when a democracy is hobbled by weak and fragmented political parties.”
It is easy to see parallels between Peruvian and Colombian politics. Like its neighbor to the south, Colombia is going through a period of rapid growth, but the benefits of this expansion have not been spread equally. In fact, looking at basic measures of economic equity and wellbeing, Colombia is in much worse shape than Peru: its poverty and unemployment rates are higher, and its distribution of wealth is more unequal. Moreover, as in Peru, hard-line security policies that worked in the short run have proven to be less effective in the long run. This, combined with persistent corruption, has allowed for the return of powerful drug-funded armed groups.
Perhaps the most obvious difference between the two countries is that Colombia does have widely popular political figures. Former President Alvaro Uribe’s successful anti-guerrilla campaign and folksy conservatism helped make him the most powerful politician in recent Colombian history. His chosen successor, Juan Manuel Santos, has adopted a much more pragmatic, centrist approach and now leads a broad and amorphous coalition including Uribistas and anti-Uribistas that once viewed one another as mortal enemies. Interestingly, despite the marked change in governing style, Colombians seem to like Santos as much as they liked Uribe.
The key question moving forward is how long Santos can keep this loose alliance together. In my view, the answer is not very long. Colombian politics is full of hidden divisions and fault lines that were put on the back burner for years as Bogota focused on security issues and on the many controversies and scandals of the Uribe era. Now, in Uribe’s absence, these divisions are bound to resurface and Santos’s ambitious political agenda will likely only speed up this process.
Take, for example, Santos’s proposal for education reform. Most Colombians agree that their country’s education system is in dire need of change, but many people are passionately opposed to Santos’s ideas, which include opening the door to more private investment and for-profit schools. Last week, students, professors and other opponents of these measures organized massive protests all over the country. According to some radical estimates, 1.5 million people took to the streets – roughly one in every thirty Colombians – in the largest demonstrations since nationwide anti-guerrilla marches two years ago.
Student demonstrations are not unusual in Colombia, but several things about last week’s protests stand out. Not only were they unusually large, but they also inspired other groups with complaints about the Santos government to voice their grievances. Once public university students got the ball rolling, trade unions joined the demonstrations to call for better working conditions and better protection from anti-union violence, one of the major controversies surrounding the U.S.-Colombia free trade agreement.
The protests also generated more violence than usual. Police used tear gas against the students in the city of Pereira, and a video circulating on the internet showed twenty or so cops cornering a handful of students in Medellin. When one of the policemen hit a woman in the face with a baton, knocking her onto the ground, he and his colleagues quickly got on their motorcycles and sped off. At a university in southwest Colombia, students died in an unusual explosion, possibly while preparing for clashes with the police, who have previously roughed up protesters in that part of the country.
The government’s reaction to the protests also showed a side of the Santos administration that we have rarely seen in its first seven months in office. In direct contrast to all the previous rhetoric about national unity, the administration was firm, even aggressive in responding to the students. Defense Minister Rodrigo Rivera said the authorities would respond to any disturbances with “severity”, while the DAS, a government intelligence agency with a long history of corruption and ties to drug lords, baselessly tried to associate the protests with FARC and ELN guerrillas.
So just a couple of weeks after Santos first announced the details of his reforms, he has already earned 1.5 million new opponents. As he continues to execute his agenda, more political fault lines will emerge. Education is just the beginning. Fiscal reforms, land redistribution, and security will generate controversies for months to come.
But perhaps the biggest time bomb, as in Peru, is the persistence of high levels of poverty and inequality. For a while, economic growth and security improvements gave the country’s poor a legitimate cause for celebration. Effective social policies at the local level, led by recent mayors of Bogota and Medellin, were also popular with the working class. But much of that is now firmly in the past. Security has begun to deteriorate and the unemployment rate, which stood at 13.6% in January of this year, is still the highest in Latin America. By some measures, Colombia is also the most unequal country in this notoriously unequal region.
Unless Santos somehow manages to channel the concerns of the poor, they will soon start to look for an alternative. Unlike many of its neighbors, Colombia does not yet have a fiery, inspiring leader who appeals directly to the poor. For decades, the leftist opposition has been marginalized and discredited by brutal guerrilla movements, by their own outdated message and corruption scandals, and most recently by Uribe’s aggressive rhetoric.
But Colombia cannot stay without a strong left forever. There are plenty of signs that the country is eager for a fresh face on the political scene. In last year’s presidential election, Antanas Mockus and his Green Party, a quirky coalition of former mayors and academics, came out of nowhere to challenge Santos and his powerful Uribista machine.
Santos won that race as the chosen candidate of a sitting president with approval ratings around 75 percent. As he continues to confront the country’s challenges, it will be hard for him to match his predecessor’s popularity. The next time Colombia chooses its leader, the political context will be even more inviting to an outsider channeling the grievances of the disaffected.
Mockus and the Greens are unlikely to play this role. Recent rallies for the young party have drawn only a handful of supporters. But the fleeting Green wave was a warning of things to come. Colombian politics is due for a major shake-up, and we can only hope that it produces more promising figures than Mr. Humala and Ms. Fujimori.