Peru votes in divisive battle of the populists

Conservative Congresswoman Keiko Fujimori and left-leaning retired military officer Ollanta Humala have ratcheted up negative campaign tactics in the run-up to today's Peru election.

Enrique Castro-Mendivil/Reuters
Peruvian presidential candidate Keiko Fujimori gestures after casting her ballot in the runoff presidential election in Lima, Sunday.

Peruvians are flocking to the polls to pick a new president today in the closest and most polarized election in the country’s modern history.

Congresswoman Keiko Fujimori – conservative daughter of former right-wing President Alberto Fujimori, who is currently serving a 25-year sentence for corruption and human rights abuses – ended the race in a statistical tie with retired military officer Ollanta Humala, with the final surveys giving the left-leaning populist a slight edge.

“This is the closest election we have seen in Peru and the country is evenly divided,” says Fernando Tuesta, head of the Catholic University of Peru’s Public Opinion Institute, pointing out that Mr. Humala and Ms. Fujimori were the two with the highest negative ratings of the 11 candidates that competed in the first round of voting on April 10.

Both opposing populists have ratcheted up negative campaign tactics in the run-up to today's vote, each seeking to paint the other as a puppet and saving their major artillery for the supposed puppet masters: the imprisoned Mr. Fujimori and Venezuela's leftist President Hugo Chávez.

A surrogate of her father?

The Humala campaign has portrayed Fujimori as a surrogate of her father, who served as president from 1990-2000. His image secured her passage into the runoff, but it might be the final reason why she loses.

Ms. Fujimori began her campaign with a pledge to pardon him. She has since dropped that idea, but it is his 10-year regime, which the anti-corruption group Transparency International called a “kleptocracy,” that weighs heavy in the campaign.

“We are running against the corrupt government of the 1990s. Alberto Fujimori chose the team and his son and daughter are representing him,” said Humala recently.

The presidential candidate’s younger brother, Kenji, was elected to Congress in April. He was the most voted candidate in Lima, the capital. An uncle, Santiago, failed in his re-election bid.

A puppet of Hugo Chávez?

The Fujimori campaign also has its boogeyman, maintaining until the final minute of the campaign that Humala is nothing more than a puppet of Mr. Chávez.

“We are a Peruvian project and Peruvians will govern, not a Venezuelan president. We are not part of a Bolivarian project controlled by Hugo Chávez,” Fujimori said during her closing rally on June 2.

This is not the first time that the figure of Chávez has hurt Humala’s campaign. The Venezuelan president was a visible figure in Humala’s 2006 presidential bid, which he lost by a whisker to current President Alan García.

Humala has put distance between himself and Chávez, telling foreign reporters on June 3 that the Venezuelan model was wrong for Peru, but the allegations keep coming.

The most recent charge came from Washington, with a former US assistant secretary of state for western hemisphere affairs, Roger Noriega, claiming that Chávez has financed Humala's current campaign. Noriega did not provide any proof and Humala categorically denied it.

Catholic University’s Tuesta says whoever wins will have to work immediately to lower the tone of the campaign and find common ground.

“Both candidates face strong resistance," he says, "but we will have a winner and the first thing he or she will have to deal with is the polarization of this campaign.”

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