Peru's democratic dilemma

By Jackson Diehl

Sometimes in a democracy voters willingly plunge over a cliff, choosing revolutionaries or religious extremists. Sometimes they unintentionally create a deadlock by dividing their votes among too many candidates.

Then there is the case of Peru, one of the most successful countries in Latin America during the last decade, where the combination of vote-splitting among moderates and the appeal of radicalism has created one of the ugliest choices ever faced by a modern democracy.

On June 5, a runoff election for president in the country of 29 million will offer two possibilities: Keiko Fujimori, the 35-year-old daughter of a former right-wing, authoritarian president who is imprisoned for corruption and human rights crimes; and Ollanta Humala, 48, a former coup-plotting army officer backed by the far left and allegedly financed by Venezuela's Hugo Chavez. Either one presages political disaster for a country that has enjoyed 10 years of moderate, competent government along with South America's highest economic growth rate.

Mario Vargas Llosa, the 2010 Nobel literature laureate who once ran for president against Keiko Fujimori's father Alberto, says the choice between the two is like picking between AIDS and cancer. In a column in the Spanish newspaper El Pais last month, the great writer, one of Latin America's best-known conservatives, reluctantly settled on the socialist Humala, on the grounds that a vote for Fujimori would "legitimate the worst dictatorship that we have endured throughout our history as a republic."

Others can't bring themselves to choose. This week I went over Peru's dilemma with Alejandro Toledo, who was president from 2001 to 2006 and who finished fourth in the April 10 primary, with 16 percent of the vote. Toledo was leader of the mass opposition movement that forced Alberto Fujimori from power after a fraudulent presidential election in 2000. But he has also been an outspoken opponent of Chavez and his model of leftist authoritarianism — which, until a recent shift to the center, was Humala's platform.

Toledo has refused to endorse either candidate while preparing to defend Peruvian democracy against either one of them. "The country is in a terrible dilemma," Toledo told me when we met at the Oslo Freedom Forum, an annual human rights conference. "In three weeks we have to make a decision between the two candidates that each offer a program that could be ruinous both in economic terms and for democracy."

Like Vargas Llosa, Toledo is scathing on the subject of Keiko Fujimori and her father, who is serving a 25-year prison sentence. If elected, she could pardon her father; even if she doesn't Toledo believes he would wield enormous influence over the government. "Fujimori means a return to the dark days of the '90s, with all the evils of corruption, authoritarianism and human rights violations," he said. Peruvians still shudder at the memory of Fujimori and his also-imprisoned former intelligence chief, Vladimiro Montesinos, who perverted the political system with blackmail and bribery, violated the constitution, stole elections and used torture and extrajudicial killing to fight left-wing guerrillas.

"In the case of Humala," Toledo says, a bit more mildly, "it is a jump into the air — we don't know which Humala we are talking about." The populist ran in the 2006 presidential election as a red-shirted Chavez clone, and even now his Web site proposes a Venezuela-style rewrite of the constitution and nationalization of big industries. But — no doubt sensing the region's political currents — Humala recently took on a group of advisers from Brazil's ruling Workers' Party and proclaimed his mentor was not Chavez but the more moderate former president Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva.

Toledo is appropriately cynical about the switch. "The Brazilians are providing the political ideas, but the money is coming from Chavez," he said, referring to reports — unconvincingly denied by Humala — that Caracas is financing his campaign. "It's a triangle."

How did Peru get into this fix? The immediate cause was the presence on the first-round presidential ballot of three centrist candidates — Toledo, former Lima mayor Luis Castaneda, and Toledo's former finance minister Pedro Pablo Kuczynski. The three gathered 44 percent of the vote in all, compared with 32 percent for Humala and 23 for Fujimori; had any one of them stayed out of the race another responsible centrist would have become Peru's next president.

Toledo blames outgoing president Alan Garcia, a longtime rival, for encouraging Kuczynski's entry into the race — a move that cut Toledo's support in half.

But the larger problem, Toledo said, was Peru's failure to spread the wealth generated by its free-market economic policies. With abundant minerals and other resources to export across the Pacific to China, Peru has seen foreign investment pour in. But like too many rapidly growing developing countries, it has been slow to adopt redistributional policies. Though the poverty rate has dropped from above 50 percent to under 35 percent, many people still felt frustrated.

"A lot of average people saw all this money coming in, heard all this talk about how successful our economy was, and they wondered, 'How come I'm not feeling any of this in my pocket?' " Toledo said. "Humala played on that."

The lesson for the region's centrist democrats is simple: "If we don't take care of the social side of the development equation, if we don't strengthen democratic institutions, if we don't take care of the environment, then there is going to be a conflict," Toledo said.

In Peru's case, the price of forgetting that wisdom is likely to be high.