A Hard Choice in Peru

New York Times -- 9 May 2001

by Steven Levitsky and Cynthia Sanborn

Steven Levitsky is an assistant professor of government at Harvard University. Cynthia Sanborn is a professor of political science at Universidad del Pacifico in Lima, Peru.

The American media has followed recent events in Peru with a mixture of fascination and horror. A year ago, Peru drew international attention when President Alberto Fujimori and his cronies maneuvered to steal their way to a third term. Then, while much of the international community prepared to recognize the election as a fait accompli, a leaked videotape revealed the extraordinary web of corruption spun by spy chief Vladimiro Montesinos, prompting Mr. Fujimori's resignation and the holding of new elections on April 8. The results of that election also stunned observers.

A runoff contest early next month pits frontrunner Alejandro Toledo, a former shoeshine boy of indigenous descent who led the opposition to Mr. Fujimori last year, against none other than ex-president Alan Garcia, whose mismanagement and abuse of power in the 1980s generated the worst economic crisis in Peruvian history. Are voters suffering from "bad memory," as a leading U.S. newspaper recently editorialized?

Not necessarily. The roots of Alan Garcia's political resurgence lie in the extraordinary weakness of Peru's political institutions. Over the last decade, Peru has suffered two meltdowns of its political establishment. In 1990, the existing elite collapsed under the weight of hyperinflation, terrorism and its own failure to represent effectively the country's poor and non-white majority. Mr. Fujimori, a political neophyte, defeated renowned novelist Mario Vargas Llosa to win the presidency.

Two years later, Mr. Fujimori's closure of Congress delivered a coup de grace to the old guard elite, and his regime then eviscerated what remained of Peru's political institutions. The espionage and extortion network constructed by Mr. Montesinos gave him de facto control over the armed forces, the legislature, the judiciary, the electoral authorities, and much of the media.

These institutions were broadly discredited, and when the regime fell last year, the political establishment collapsed yet again. Established political parties have been replaced by an array of personality driven movements and amateur outsider candidates. Because outsiders lack political experience and a track record, they represent a shot in the dark for voters, both in terms of their ability to govern and their commitment to democracy.

It is in this context that Alan Garcia returned to become a major contender for the presidency. Mr. Garcia is a skilled politician with a real party base, but what truly permitted his rise in the polls -- his party's presidential candidate the previous year won just two percent of the vote -- was the weakness of the rest of the field. Mr. Toledo, though widely respected for his role in bringing down Mr. Fujimori, is a political amateur who has proved to be a mistake-prone candidate. He lacks clarity on major policy issues, and his clumsy efforts to dodge persistent allegations of personal misconduct -- including drug use and fathering a child out of wedlock -- have raised questions about his credibility. The third place finisher in April, Lourdes Flores, a former congresswoman with a record of honesty and support for democracy, could not free herself from the traditional political and socioeconomic elite that Peruvians rejected in 1990. Her National Unity movement never even faintly resembled the society she hoped to govern.

Mr. Garcia's return has economic roots as well. Although Mr. Fujimori's free-market reforms ended hyperinflation and initially generated growth, the economy stagnated in the latter part of the 1990s. Poverty and inequality increased, and many Peruvians now consider themselves worse off than they were 10 years ago. Yet of the leading presidential candidates, only Mr. Garcia appeared to address voters' urgent economic concerns. Although Mr. Toledo's main campaign slogan was "More Jobs," his policy proposals were generally perceived to lack content.

Mr. Garcia, while claiming to have learned from his past mistakes, vigorously challenged the economic policies of the 1990s and offered people specific changes, such as lower utility rates, public jobs programs and credit for farmers. Viable or not, these proposals struck a chord among an electorate that had grown deeply dissatisfied with the economic status quo.

Peruvians thus confront a difficult choice: Mr. Toledo, an inexperienced leader dogged by personal credibility problems, or Mr. Garcia.

Contrary to what many observers fear, the greatest risk posed by Mr. Garcia may not be economic. He has already moved to reassure bankers and investors that, if elected, he would follow in the footsteps of the numerous other Latin American populists and leftists who pursued market-friendly policies in the 1990s. Rather, the main problem with Mr. Garcia is that he still faces credible charges of corruption and responsibility for gross human rights abuses during his first administration. If a vote for Mr. Toledo is a shot in the dark, a vote for Mr. Garcia is a vote for impunity.

Yet Peru's flawed presidential candidates do not necessarily condemn it to another cycle of instability. Although Mr. Toledo and Mr. Garcia have captured the spotlight, a more important set of developments may be taking place at the margins of the campaign.

Since assuming office last November, the transitional government led by interim President Valentin Paniagua has taken important steps to rebuild Peru's public institutions. Mr. Paniagua built a broad-based government, drawing skilled and respected people from across the political spectrum. All of these appointees voluntarily stayed out of this year's campaigns, which enabled the government to focus its attention on reforms.

The government's performance has been impressive. It has begun to restructure the armed forces, removing officers who collaborated with the past regime and eliciting a formal apology for the 1992 coup. It has restored credibility to the electoral authorities, begun to depoliticize tax administration and welfare programs, and introduced mechanisms of consultation with leading civil society organizations in such areas as education, labor and justice.

The new government has also attacked the misuse of power head on. Both the executive and the congress have launched extensive investigations into corruption and other abuses of authority under Mr. Fujimori, resulting in the arrest of top military officers, judges, previously untouchable business moguls and politicians of all stripes.

Finally, in stark contrast to his predecessors, Mr. Paniagua has governed by consensus and by the rules, seeking to strengthen rather than circumvent democratic institutions. In a society that long ago lost faith in its leaders and institutions, this represents an important change.

The international media has paid scant attention to the ongoing reconstruction in Peru. Yet this process may be critical to laying the foundation for democracy no matter who wins next month's election. Rather than wringing its hands over the return of Mr. Garcia, the international community should support this effort. If it fails, Peruvian democracy will remain vulnerable to corrupt and irresponsible leaders. If it succeeds, democracy will have a chance to survive in spite of them.