The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Peru’s 77-year-old new president isn’t acting his age. And Peruvians love it.

New Peruvian President Pedro Pablo Kuczynski, 77, top right, and part of his cabinet do a morning workout at the presidential palace in Lima on Aug. 4, the week after his inauguration. (Presidencia Peru via AFP)

LIMA, Peru — In Peru, the red-and-white sash draped over an incoming president's shoulder during the inaugural ceremonies in congress is a clear symbol of the solemnity of the office.

On July 28, observers were much less sure what to make of the white handkerchief that a grinning Pedro Pablo Kuczynski, the Andean nation’s new, centrist leader, placed on his balding head during the military parade that followed his swearing-in.

Kuczynski's impromptu response to the sunshine unexpectedly bursting through Lima’s winter skies provoked mirth in some corners — and criticism from supporters of his defeated opponent, Keiko Fujimori.

Yet the incident appears to have captured the original presidential style of PPK (he is widely known here by his initials): spontaneous, informal and good-humored.

Since winning a runoff election on June 5, the 77-year-old former Wall Street banker has repeatedly cracked jokes, including the quip that he has been unable to speak to Fujimori because he gets a wrong-number message when he calls her.

He has broken into a Latino two-step at the request of passersby and delights in publicly ribbing his cabinet ministers, including one occasion when he informed them of his “seven commandments,” which ranged from resisting corruption to touring every corner of the geographically challenging country.

To encourage Peruvians to exercise more, the new president also led 10 of his ministers in a public workout before one of their first cabinet meetings. After two personal trainers had put the politicians through their paces, including with red elastic bands, for 30 minutes in front of amused journalists and citizens, PPK said he wanted the entire nation “ready” for the Pan American Games, which Lima will host in 2019.

Gestión, Peru’s business paper, described the workout as “breaking every known protocol.”

PPK’s grandfatherly bonhomie contrasts with the dour public manner of his predecessor, Ollanta Humala, a 54-year-old center-left former army officer who, critics say, appeared overwhelmed by the presidency.

So far at least, Peruvians appear to be loving it.

Kuczynski beat Fujimori, daughter of Peru’s jailed 1990s strongman president, Alberto Fujimori, by just under a quarter of 1 percent. Now he has an approval rating of 70.4 percent, while Fujimori, who had a double-digit lead before the election, is languishing at 38.3 percent.

While he has been conciliatory, the 40-year-old former congresswoman, whose Popular Force party dominates congress, waited weeks to congratulate him on his victory — via Twitter — and then vowed that Popular Force would govern from the legislature.

That has left some here worried about the long-term prospects for Kuczynski's plans to crack down on endemic corruption, reform Peru’s police service and judiciary and lift millions of Peruvians out of poverty, starting with providing them running potable water.

Yet one person who isn’t concerned is PPK.

“He was a poor candidate, but it seems like he is finally allowing his real personality to come through,” said Pao Ugaz, a progressive journalist with a large Twitter following. “It’s something Peruvians are not used to in their president. When he put the handkerchief on his head, he obviously didn’t care about the pictures. Good humor always goes down well and the Fujimoristas don’t know how to respond.”

Like many Peruvian leftists, Ugaz says she voted for PPK to block a perceived threat to democracy from Fujimori.

The relaxed approach may also be rooted in Kuczynski’s age and long career in the private and public sectors. As a former prime minister, economy minister, high-level World Bank official and investment banker, gravitas is not something he needs to fake.

It remains to be seen whether an electorate known for its contempt for the political class — often with good reason — will still be entertained by the president’s idiosyncrasies when his term ends in 2021.

But for now, Peruvian voters, inspired by PPK’s good spirits, are getting used to that rarest of feelings: cautious optimism.