In a region battered by coronavirus, severe economic contraction and political unrest, few nations have suffered as much as Peru, which goes to the polls this weekend to choose its fifth president in as many years.
While Brazil has grabbed the headlines for the sheer number of people dying during the pandemic, Peru’s per-capita death toll of one in every 630 inhabitants is worse. It is the highest in South America and at one point last year was the highest on the planet.
Even now, the country is facing a ferocious third wave. In late March it recorded its worst day yet for new cases, prompting some to say the April 11 election should be postponed.
Gross domestic product shrank by 11 per cent last year — the biggest contraction of any big economy in the region. The government’s tough lockdown measures crippled growth but failed to halt contagion.
While the pandemic has raged, the country has lurched from one political crisis to another. It has had three presidents in the past six months and one of them lasted only five days. Most former recent Peruvian presidents are under investigation for corruption and congress is locked in a ceaseless battle for power with the executive.
Given all this, it is perhaps unsurprising that between a quarter and a third of Peruvians say they either do not know for whom to vote or they will spoil their ballots. Voting is compulsory in the nation of 32m people.
None of the 18 presidential candidates has consistently polled more than 15 per cent and most are in single figures. The election looks certain to go to a run-off in June between those who finish first and second.
“Most recent elections in Peru have been like this — very volatile — largely because we don’t have strong, well-organised parties,” said Paula Muñoz, a political scientist at the University of the Pacific in Lima. “People tend to wait until the end of the campaign and then vote strategically, for whoever they regard as the least bad option.”
Leading many recent polls is Yonhy Lescano, a 62-year-old congressman. A seasoned operator with two decades of parliamentary experience, he is left-leaning and populist, although socially conservative.
“Peru knows me, I have been a congressman, I’ve approved laws, I’ve tackled corruption,” he said in a televised debate last month. “I’ve never taken advantage of my position, I’m not a millionaire . . . I’ve always acted with honour and honesty.”
Lescano has pledged to spread Peru’s mining wealth more equally and force private banks to reduce what he describes as “abusive” lending rates. He has vowed to generate 5m jobs in five years and tackle Peru’s notoriously unstructured labour market. Some 70 per cent of the work force is informal compared to a Latin American average of around 50 per cent. Lescano reckons he can reduce Peru’s rate to 30 per cent by 2026.
He has also pledged to bring down debt. It has risen sharply because of the pandemic, although at around 35 per cent of gross domestic product it is still low by regional standards. Lescano says he will cut it to 26 per cent.
While he is the favourite, the race is very tight. Recent polls have suggested fewer than four percentage points separate the leading six candidates.
Aside from Lescano, the other contenders are: Rafael López Aliaga, an ultra-conservative businessman; Verónika Mendoza, a leftist making her second bid for the presidency; Hernando de Soto, an experienced liberal economist; George Forsyth, a former professional footballer who has served as mayor of a Lima suburb; Keiko Fujimori, the daughter of Peru’s authoritarian former president Alberto Fujimori.
The candidates are a colourful bunch.
López Aliaga, a member of Opus Dei, the conservative Catholic movement, raised eyebrows recently by revealing he uses a cilice — a metal chain with spikes on it — to suppress his sexual desire and bring him closer to God. “It’s a small mortification and I do it voluntarily,” he told a local radio station. “No one’s watching me. I do it alone, 10 minutes, 20 minutes.” Steadfastly opposed to abortion, gay marriage and euthanasia, he is a free marketeer economically.
Forsyth had a successful career as a goalkeeper for one of Peru’s biggest football clubs, Alianza Lima, and made a few appearances for the reserves of German team Borussia Dortmund. Born in Venezuela, his mother is a former Miss Chile. A relative youngster at 38, he markets himself as the candidate of change and promises a crackdown on crime.
Mendoza is the most leftwing of the group. She wants a new constitution to be drawn up by constituent assembly and has vowed to expand the state’s role in the economy, scrap the private pension system and impose a wealth tax on fortunes of more than $100m.
Keiko Fujimori is arguably the most experienced candidate, having served as First Lady to her father before entering congress in 2006. This is her third bid for the presidency but she is under investigation for corruption. Last month, a prosecutor said she should spend 30 years in prison for money laundering. Fujimori, who has already had two stints in preventive custody, denies the charges.
Peruvians will also vote for a new congress on April 11. The current one is highly fragmented with 12 parties filling 130 seats. No recent president has commanded anything like a majority, which has been part of their problem, along with a constitution that allows congress to impeach them at will.
María Alejandra Campos, a political scientist in Lima, said Lescano’s Acción Popular (Popular Action) is the only party capable of winning 30 seats or more and that, if he is president, that might give him the platform he needs to hold a government together.
“None of the others would have more than 15 or 20 seats and they’d be very weak,” she said. “If Lescano wins there’s likely to be less political instability but even so he’d have to negotiate a lot to keep his government afloat. It wouldn’t be easy.”