Peru’s crowded presidential race brings little hope for change

While voters say they are fed up with years of corruption and political turmoil, and many plan to spoil their ballots, there is no clear frontrunner among the 18 candidates

Yonhy Lescano Ancieta, presidential candidate of the Popular Action party,  during a final campaign rally ahead of Sunday’s   election. Photograph: Angela Ponce/Bloomberg

Yonhy Lescano Ancieta, presidential candidate of the Popular Action party, during a final campaign rally ahead of Sunday’s election. Photograph: Angela Ponce/Bloomberg

 

Given Peru’s recent past it would be understandable if few people were willing to put their names forward for Sunday’s presidential election.

The presidential sash seems cursed. One former president is in the US fighting extradition home to face corruption charges. His successor took his own life as police knocked on his door. A third spent nine months in jail on remand, while his impeached successor is under house arrest and the two men who followed him, also bundled out early, are both under investigation. You have to go back to 1985 for the last time an elected president left office for a respectable retirement.

Despite this ominous history, Sunday’s field is a crowded one. Eighteen candidates are competing for the right to govern the South American country hardest hit by the pandemic, its economy ravaged by a strict lockdown that failed to prevent it suffering one of the world’s highest mortality rates.

None of the 18 has set alight a race in which polling in the mid-teens makes you a frontrunner. Voters say they are fed up with years of corruption and political turmoil and many plan to spoil their ballot in a country where voting is mandatory. With no one likely to win the first round outright, about half the fragmented field are fighting for a place in a run-off scheduled for June between the two best-placed candidates.

For many political observers this poor state of Peru’s democratic health is worrying.

“For a long time now we have had a problem with political representation. All the candidates only speak to their own small niches of the population. We no longer have leaders capable of agglutinating different sectors of society together,” says Patricia Zárate, a sociologist at the Institute of Peruvian Studies in Lima.

“And we do not just have a problem with governability but there is also a growing lack of confidence in elections themselves and this is very serious. Democracy is at risk.”

This risk seem to be reinforced by the poor calibre of several of those trying to claw their way into the second round. After his stint in jail former president Ollanta Humala is running despite facing corruption charges related to his previous term which ended in 2016. Keiko Fujimori, daughter of the jailed former dictator Alberto Fujimori, is campaigning while under house arrest.

Murder and scandal

Controversial former army general Daniel Urresti is accused of murdering a journalist in 1988 while liberal candidate Hernando de Soto was caught up in a vaccination queue-jumping scandal.

Also jostling for a place in the run-off is ultra-conservative Opus Dei member Rafael López Aliaga, leftist anthropologist Verónika Mendoza and George Forsyth, the 38-year-old former goalkeeper for Peru’s national football team. The candidate polls show Yonhy Lescano, a wily congressman with a populist mix of interventionist economic policies and conservative views on social issues, is most likely to win a run-off .

Voters will also elect a new congress which is expected to be as politically pulverised as the presidential field. This all but guarantees a continuation of the institutional power struggles between the executive and legislature that have scarred the country’s recent history.

Ecuador

Also voting on Sunday is Peru’s neighbour Ecuador, which holds the run-off round of its presidential election. Final opinion polls show a technical tie between the left-populist candidate Andrés Arauz and right-winger Guillermo Lasso.

The contest has tightened considerably since Arauz emerged from February’s first round as the clear frontrunner. He is backed by former president Rafael Correa in whose government he served. A charismatic but controversial leader from Latin America’s so-called “pink tide” of leftist leaders, Correa has been in exile since falling out with his vice-president Lenín Moreno who succeeded him in 2017.

Correa has since been convicted in his absence of corruption relating to his time in office. Still popular because of his redistributive policies when in power, the former leader has thrown his full backing behind his 36-year old protégé, who has promised to facilitate his mentor’s return to the country.

Chile was the third Andean nation due to go to the polls on Sunday. But earlier this week it delayed by five weeks an election for an assembly tasked with writing a new constitution because of a surge in coronavirus infections. The latest wave to hit the country is despite the fact it leads South America in vaccinations against Covid-19.

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