Like many observers and voters, I have serious concerns about both candidates in Peru's election this Sunday. Both have committed serious errors in the past, both have or had ties to people and groups that are a major political liability, and both have proclaimed ideologies and political positions (though now moderated during this second round of the election) that are a concern.
I'm concerned about both, but not so concerned about either one that I'd be convinced to support the other. It's for that reason I wouldn't be surprised to see a pattern of blank or spoiled ballots appear during the vote count in Peru, one that drives both candidates beneath 50 percent of the total vote. There will also be a lot of people describing their vote for the "least bad" or "lesser of two evils."
That said, I think many observers of this election have it wrong when they say that a Ollanta Humala or Keiko Fujimori victory, as compared to the other, would be automatically detrimental to Peruvian democracy.
Democracy isn't just about presidents and presidential elections. Peru needs a Congress that can check the executive branch, an independent judiciary and prosecutors who can go after corruption and human rights abuses, separation of powers among the branches, a free press and robust civil society to oversee the whole system, and a citizen population that is engaged and makes its voice heard.
A president can work to undermine those other aspects of democracy, as some believe that either Mr. Humala or Ms. Fujimori might do and as we've seen in other Latin American countries over the past two decades, but it is not certain. Indeed, many of the separation of powers aspects of democracy are designed specifically to manage an over-reaching executive branch. If they fail to do so, it's a wider failure of democracy than the election of any one individual.
Anyone who believes that only one of these two candidates will preserve Peru's democracy while the other will destroy it already believes that Peru's democracy is gone. The fate of democracy can never hinge on the election or rejection of any one individual by the voters. The other institutions of democracy must matter.
I hope the next president surprises us. I hope that either President Humala or President Fujimori defies expectations and becomes a great leader for their country. It's quite possible that either of them could end up like the past two presidents, unpopular and muddling along until the next election. And unfortunately, it's possible that either of them will work to take over the political system and undermine democratic institutions. However, that's a future that's not yet written. It's a future that will be shaped by institutions and events well beyond a single election.
Sunday's election will be an expression of democracy, whichever candidate wins, as millions of voters go to the polls. It can be a messy process at times, but it's something to be celebrated and defended.