May 22, 2011

At a meeting of Western Hemisphere leaders in Lima, Peru, just moments after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, Secretary of State Colin Powell signed the Inter-American Democratic Charter. The Andean nation had recently emerged from a decade of authoritarian rule under Alberto Fujimori. This was the right time and place for governments to endorse democratic principles.

Today, however, many Peruvian supporters of democracy are dispirited. When they mark the charter’s 10th year, their country will have a president of suspect democratic credentials. Peru’s already fragile institutions will be severely tested.

On June 5, Peruvians will decide between Ollanta Humala and Keiko Fujimori in a runoff election. In the first round, Humala, a retired military officer who has been denounced by human rights groups and who came close to winning Peru’s presidency in 2006, got nearly 32 percent of the vote. Fujimori, whose father, the former president, is serving a 25-year sentence for corruption and human rights abuses, garnered more than 23 percent. Peru’s Nobel laureate, Mario Vargas Llosa, once described the choice as akin to deciding between “terminal cancer and AIDS.”

What is striking about the electoral choice is that by conventional economic and social measures, Peru’s performance in recent years has been exemplary. Economic growth has averaged more than 7 percent a year over the past decade, the highest in Latin America, while the poverty rate has fallen to 34 percent from more than 50 percent. Even the still-yawning gap between rich and poor has narrowed. Sound economic management and luck — Peru has ridden the commodity boom — account for the success.

Many assumed that such impressive economic results would bring the political moderation and stability that Peru’s neighbors — Brazil, Colombia and Chile — have enjoyed. To be sure, nearly 45 percent of Peruvians divided their vote among three centrist options, but a fragmented party system and an inability to coalesce around one candidate proved costly.

Still, the outcome defies the assumption that good economics and good politics are inseparable. It also reinforces Peru’s glaring paradox: high growth, declining poverty — and deep political disaffection. In the past five years Peruvian President Alan Garcia’s approval ratings rarely exceeded 30 percent. In regional surveys, trust in politicians is at rock bottom.

Although some of the fruits of growth trickled down, the government showed scant interest in pursuing serious social reform and addressing the grievances of Peru’s poor. With a buoyant economy, the absence of redistribution as a top priority was inexplicable. The lesson for Peru’s political class is clear: Economic gains must be translated into effective public services and policies aimed at meeting the needs of ordinary citizens.

The sense of complacency and even triumphalism — Peru was touted as a “rising star” — was an affront to many whose improved situation still fell far short of the national bonanza. Rampant, conspicuous corruption heightened public resentment toward the government and the private sector. Rising crime and a flourishing drug trade added to the discontent.

Fujimori and Humala understand the country’s mood. Fujimori, who called her father Peru’s greatest president, has a core constituency that credits him with taming hyperinflation and defeating brutal insurgencies in the 1990s. Though his presidency ended in trauma and disgrace, Alberto Fujimori had a populist touch and is still fondly remembered by a fifth of the population.

Humala has run a disciplined campaign, emphasizing nationalist themes and tapping into widespread frustration with politics as usual and a desire for change. His rhetoric has moderated since the 2006 election, when he embraced Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez (one reason he lost). This time Humala has wisely distanced himself from Chavez. He has benefited from advisers close to the Workers Party of former Brazilian president Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva and has embraced more pragmatic remedies for Peru’s ills. He also has said he wants good relations with Washington.

Peruvians will have to judge whether Humala has really changed and will continue Peru’s economic progress and respect democratic institutions, and whether Fujimori will adhere to constitutional norms and run a reasonably honest administration. Both are vying for the political center and appealing to Peru’s growing middle class. Recent polls point to a tight race. Fujimori now has a slight edge. Vargas Llosa now supports Humala — albeit “unhappily and with fear.”

Though dire outcomes are improbable, this election carries great risks for Peru’s democracy. As president, either Humala or Fujimori could be tempted to push Peru toward the authoritarianism of Venezuela and Nicaragua. That course would be particularly disheartening in view of Peru’s enormous vibrancy in recent years.

The writer is president of the Inter-American Dialogue and an adjunct professor at Georgetown University.