Peru heading into the runoff election

For the first time in its modern history, last Sunday, April 10, Peru held its fourth consecutive democratic election, which was a record.

This process, which in its pre-election phase was marked by a tense climate full of surprises, including the exclusion (by decision of the electoral courts) of two of the main presidential candidates – César Acuna  and Julio Guzmán (Guzmán was in second place in the polls) – unfolded quite normally and had a high level of participation, nearly 82%.

I wish to highlight the following five points regarding the first round.

  1. Fujimorismo, led by Keiko Fujimori (the daughter of the autocrat Alberto Fujimori) was the undisputed winner of this first round. She obtained the absolute majority in Congress (70 to 72 members of a total of 130) and almost 40% of the votes in the presidential election (39.85%). In second place (and quite far behind) was Pedro Pablo Kuczynski, who with 21.01% of the votes for president won approximately 20 seats in Congress. And in third place, just 2 points behind Kuczynski, was the candidate of the left (which was the big surprise in this election), Verónika Mendoza, with 18.78% of the presidential votes and approximately 20 members of Congress.
  2. Following a regular pattern since 2001 in Peru, the party in power lost (President Humala’s  lost its registration and did not win a single seat in the legislature), and a second round election must be held to decide who will be elected president, since no candidate won over 50% of the votes. It is possible that the results will flip on the second round, that is, that the winner of the first round is defeated in the second.
  3. This vote reaffirms the predominance of the center-right (even though Kuczynski, in a recent interview, said that he was not on the right) and of the fujimorista populist right, which, together, account for 61% of the presidential vote and about 90 of the 130 legislators elected to the unicameral Congress.
  4. Also significant is the large percentage of null and blank ballots, which combined accounted for 17.58% of the vote; such votes could play an important role in the second round.
  5. Finally, special mention should be made of the poor results obtained by the two former presidents who attempted to return to the presidency via alternate re-election: Alejandro Toledo, who won a paltry 1.30% (which led his party to lose its registration) and Alan García, who with a scant 5.83% came in fifth place and narrowly saved his party’s registration.

The second round

Peru will return to the polls next June 5 in what will be a hard-fought runoff election. Since the return to democracy the country has held nine presidential elections from 1980 to 2016, and in seven of them (all but 1980 and 1995) it was necessary to go to a second round (though in 1985 it didn’t happen because candidate Barrantes, the second-place finisher, declined to participate in the runoff against García).

The very large margin (almost 20 points) with which Keiko beat Kuczynski in the first round could lead to the mistake of assuming that the runoff is a foregone conclusion, which is not the case. Obviously, making up for such a large margin is no easy task, but it is not impossible given the anti-Fujimori sentiment that persists in Peru.

The comparative experience of Latin America shows that of the 44 runoff elections that took place from 1978 to 2015, the second place finisher in the first round ended up winning in the second round 11 times. The two most recent cases are Juan Manuel Santos in Colombia (2014) and Mauricio Macri in Argentina (2015). Peru is among the countries where this has happened. Two of the 11 runoff elections in which the second place finisher in the first round ended up winning in the second round have occurred in Peru: in 1990 (when Fujimori defeated Vargas Llosa in the second round) and in 2006 (when García beat Humala in the second round).

For that to happen, Kuczynski should try to accomplish three objectives: (1) succeed in getting public opinion to perceive that despite the large margin in the first round, Keiko is not assured a victory in the runoff and that there are real possibilities of beating her in the second round; (2) draw on the strong anti-Fujimori spirit to put together (with the largest number of political forces) a “negative coalition” against fujimorismo; and (3) generate enough enthusiasm to ensure that the level of electoral participation does not drop off in the second round, and to get it to increase as much as possible, preventing the anti-Fujimori vote (especially the left vote) from becoming null votes, blank votes, or abstention.

The second point is the key factor for Kuczynski to achieve a victory in the runoff. One should bear in mind that the objective of any second-round vote is to not lose the hardcore vote obtained in the first round, to reduce to the greatest possible degree the anti-vote, and to win the largest number of new voters.

The strategy Kuczynski needs to put into play to attain this objective is not simple. First, he must convince the electorate that he is the best candidate, and at the same time (and especially for those who didn’t vote in the first round) that he represents the lesser evil (even if they have to vote for him reluctantly). He must also try to convince the citizenry that the return of fujimorismo to the Executive – having secured (as a result of the first round) control of the Congress – represents a serious danger to democracy. Yet Kuczynski must use this argument with great prudence – so as to not wound Keiko too much – since if he wins the presidency he will need the support of fujimorismo in Congress to govern and to move his agenda forward.

For her part, Keiko’s strategy to avoid losing in the second round includes reducing the anti-Keiko vote and moving towards the center. To do so she must try to convince citizens that she is different from her father and that she will not use the enormous power she could come to have – simultaneous control of the Congress and the Executive – to install an authoritarian government. In other words, Keiko must resolve the dilemma between democracy and authoritarianism in her favor.

My opinion: the runoff vote in Peru bears the particularity of being a dispute between two rightist models: a more populist one led by Keiko and other more liberal one headed up by Kuczynski. Accordingly, the economic model is not in question; the central dispute will revolve mainly around the axis of fujimorismo/antifujimorismo, while certain issues such as economic recovery and citizen security will also figure prominently.

While Keiko finished with a 20-point lead over Kuczynski in the first round of balloting, the start of the campaign for the runoff (according to most of the polls) finds them tied, which indicates that while Kuczynski doubled his share of the intended votes, Keiko has not seen her totals grow, but has retained her share of firm supporters. Yet to win the presidency both candidates must win over new votes, especially the large part of the electorate who in the first round threw their support behind Verónika Mendoza. However, in a country with weak party institutions and a highly volatile vote, it will not be easy for the leaders of the political forces who did not make it to the second round to endorse votes over to Kuczynski or Keiko. In view of all the foregoing considerations, with 40 days remaining until the runoff election, the competition for the presidency is still an open race and very much disputed, and the outcome more uncertain than ever. 

This piece was originally published by International IDEA