Peru's Populist Gamble
Skeptics on the Left
That large segments of the Peruvian left are critical of Humala is a fact not often noted when comparisons are made to Chávez and Morales. "He bandies about socialist ideas in a highly improvised manner, but cannot explain how he plans to bring about change, nor with whom," said Socialist Party leader Javier Diez Canseco of Humala in an interview with the Inter-Press Service. "There is a divorce between what he says and what he does."
Diez Canseco, a steadfast activist and political organizer, would better fit the mold of Latin America's new progressive leadership. He polled under 1 percent in this week's elections, however. Since Izquierda Unida, Peru's coalition of progressive parties, fell apart in the early 1990s, the left has been weak and divided. "This has allowed figures like Humala to fill the void," says Youngers.
Skeptics of Humala's ascendancy fear that the candidate could repeat the performance of Ecuador's Lucio Gutiérrez, another ex-military officer and past coup leader. Gutiérrez was hailed in 2002 as a fresh addition to the New Left when he was elected president on a platform criticizing neoliberalism. Once in power, he quickly turned on his campaign promises, alienated his indigenous supporters, backed Washington's conservative economic policies and tried to pack the Ecuadorian courts to forestall impeachment on corruption charges. With massive street protests demanding Gutiérrez's resignation, a special session of Congress voted to remove him from office in April 2005. Well before then, Ecuador quietly disappeared from the list of countries whose leaders represent a leftist revitalization.
It is not clear what will happen in the second round of Peru's presidential elections, nor what outcome would be best for those who have benefited least from Toledo's neoliberal rule. Humala's first-round win was not as decisive as some expected. The often-hostile Peruvian press declared it "a victory with the flavor of defeat." Opinion polls suggest that Lourdes Flores could prevail over Humala in a runoff. Many analysts believe that Alan Garcia, a gifted orator, could prove to be both a better campaigner and more adept at cutting deals with voting blocs whose candidates have been eliminated.
Neither of these candidates, if elected, would go far toward reversing the policies that have regularly kept Toledo's approval ratings below 15 percent. A large part of Humala's draw, especially among the rural poor, is a legitimate frustration with an economic system that has provided them with little opportunity to overcome their hardships and with the political parties that have failed to instate significant reforms. This is what the Bush Administration consistently overlooks in its blanket condemnation of Latin American populism--and what makes it increasingly estranged from the region's newly elected governments.
If Humala can overcome his authoritarian leanings and live up to his campaign pledges, he could chart a promising new course for his country. For the Peruvian people, believing that he can do so of his own volition, or that they will be able hold him accountable, would be a serious gamble. But absent a better option, it may be one they are willing to take.