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A Blast From the Past Riles Presidential Politics

THE WORLD : PERU

April 15, 2001|Michael Shifter | Michael Shifter is vice president for policy at the Inter-American Dialogue and teaches Latin American politics at Georgetown University's School of Foreign Service

WASHINGTON — On July 28, 1985, Alan Garcia became Peru's youngest-ever president at 35 and promised an era of social progress and democratic renewal. Instead, he left the country in near-ruin, with both inflation and political violence reaching unprecedented levels. Yet, despite this shameful record, it is conceivable that Garcia, now 51, may get another chance to lead Peru on July 28, 2001.

To be sure, Alejandro Toledo, who won the first round with some 36% of the vote (well short of the 50% plus 1 needed to avoid a runoff), is the odds-on favorite to be Peru's next president. But by any measure, Garcia emerged as the true winner in last Sunday's elections. In just over two months time, he rode an extraordinary surge of support into the runoff, which is scheduled for late May or June. Whatever that election's outcome, Garcia has already surpassed his political objective. It would be an understatement to say that he has been rehabilitated and has made a "soft landing" back into Peruvian politics after nine years in political exile in Colombia.

Toledo's popularity remains a function of his remarkable personal story, his Andean Indian origins in a country with a significant indigenous population and his admirable defiance of the decade-long regime led by former President Alberto Fujimori and his nefarious national-security chief, Vladimiro Montesinos. Since Toledo stunned observers a year ago when he finished strong against Fujimori in a rigged election, the former shoeshine boy with a Stanford doctorate has had his eyes set on the office he deems as rightfully his.

Yet, the results of last week's contest reveal slippage in Toledo's support and many vulnerabilities. His favorable image has withered in the face of questions about his personal conduct and his evasive way of handling such questions. While Toledo's campaign has been soaked in the politically appealing imagery and symbolism of the Incas, he has offered few details on how he proposes to address Peru's flagging economy and to clean up its political institutions.

The supreme irony of the election is that Garcia, despite his sullied record as Peru's former president, managed to seize the high moral ground. The many charges of corruption and abuse leveled against his government pale in comparison with those that have riveted the nation following the collapse of the Fujimori regime. With Toledo and former congresswoman Lourdes Flores, the morally esteemed presidential candidate of the National Unity Party, trading personal charges and insults, Garcia's folksiness and years away from Peru seem to have lifted him above it all.

In Peru's highly fluid and unpredictable politics, Garcia's assets are considerable. He's a superb communicator and heads Peru's most coherent and disciplined political party. He is unusually eloquent in his critique of the neoliberal economic model that has, on balance, yielded disappointing results for most Peruvians over the past decade and in his call for a stronger social-safety net to protect the poor. Many Peruvians seem to have accepted Garcia's acknowledgment of his past mistakes and his ability to learn from them. Peru's youngest voters, who have no memory of his past failures, were particularly attracted to Garcia's dynamism.

A consummate political animal, Garcia is likely to move toward the center in the runoff against Toledo. He'll keep his populist rhetoric to secure his base but will try to sound more pragmatic when addressing the international financial community, which is understandably nervous about the former president's political resurrection. Rumors that internationally recognized Peruvian economist and author Hernando de Soto is advising Garcia lends some credence to this possibility. Garcia could even embrace more orthodox economic policies, which is what former Venezuelan President and populist Carlos Andres Perez (the godfather of Garcia's son) did after a decade out of office.

As for Toledo, he may enjoy some success in appealing to the center-right voters who supported Flores. But he will have a tougher time making a dent in Garcia's hard-core base on the left.

Whoever is elected as Peru's next president will have to muster all his political skills to build an effective governing coalition among the country's diverse political forces. The new congress will be highly fragmented; neither Toledo's nor Garcia's party will enjoy a majority. Fortunately, the current caretaker government headed by Valentin Paniagua, which assumed power following the demise of the Fujimori regime, has demonstrated that such a consensus is possible.

The most urgent and critical challenge of all will be to instill a sense of public confidence and credibility in Peruvian political life. That will not be easy for a political novice like Toledo, and may prove exceedingly difficult for such a polarizing figure as Garcia. But after one decade of unparalleled economic and political disorder and another of corruption and autocratic rule, Peruvians hope their next president will focus on reconstruction and unity. Peru needs to build stable and orderly institutions and to deal more effectively with its acute social and economic problems. Until it does, there is little reason to expect anything but the unexpected. *

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