Voters Reject Traditional Parties in Elections Marred by Violence
by April Howard, Toward Freedom
A soldier running from angry protesters died instantly when he fell off of a cliff, town offices were burned down, and one mayor escaped to Lima, claiming that his constituency was planning to lynch him. In spite of the Organization of American States’ report of a normal election, Peruvian President Alan García called on the armed forces to quell violence across the country during and after regional elections held November 19, 2006.
Though García was re-elected as president representing one of the country’s oldest and most institutionalized political parties just six months before, these regional elections showed a widespread rejection of such parties, and favor for “independent” parties. The election results challenge García’s second presidency and demonstrate the deep social, economic and political divides that continue to run through present-day Peru.
The regional election results provide a contrast to the past presidential elections held on June 4, 2006, which had analysts wondering if Peru was going to join in on the current leftist shift in Latin America. Recent presidential elections across the continent have brought left-of-center presidents into office in Venezuela, Argentina, Uruguay, Chile, Bolivia and most recently, Ecuador. The June 4 elections were a run-off between García, of the eighty-year-old and well-institutionalized Peruvian Aprista Party (PAP), and nationalist candidate Ollanta Humala who ran for the Union for Peru Party (UPP), and was also supported by his own Peruvian Nationalist Party. The choice of candidates already indicated the divide between rural Peruvians and those from Lima. While García’s base was concentrated in the northern coast and in the capital city of Lima, Humala’s support came from the 50% of Peruvians who live under the poverty line, mostly rural and indigenous poor in the south.
The fact that Alan García was willing to run for a second time was somewhat surprising. His first presidency from 1985-1990 is remembered as disastrous, marked by 7,000% inflation, food shortages and Marxist guerilla violence. His policies are now “used by ardent free-marketeers as a textbook example of how to ruin a country’s economy” (BBC News, June 5, 2006). Under his watch, the number of Peruvians living in poverty rose by five million, from 41.6% to 55% of the population, and Peru’s gross domestic product shrank by one-fifth. His 2001 run for presidency was unsuccessful, losing in a run-off to Alejandro Toledo, but his campaign message in 2006 insisted that he had learned from his mistakes. While the Peruvian economy recovered somewhat under Toledo, mostly due to high world prices for gold and copper exports, the underlying problems of poverty and unemployment remained critical.
While nationalist candidate Ollanta Humala led in the first round of the presidential elections, held on April 9, 2006, he lost ground when he faced García in the run-offs. In the first round, Humala came in first place, receiving 30.62% of the valid votes, while Alan García obtained 24.32%, beating conservative, pro-business and Lima elite favorite Lourdes Flores of the National Unity coalition. However, as run-off elections neared, Humala was hurt by a combination of family, international and trumped-up publicity. García’s campaign focused in on Humala’s radical father’s support for Shining Path leaders, and his mother’s assertion that homosexuals should be shot. When Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez entered the scene with support for Humala and scathing insults for García, Humala lost more support. Lima-based economist Fritz du Bois told the BBC News García became the “default candidate of the business community, the markets and the middle classes. Humala’s message was so aggressive and hostile to the private sector and hostile in general to the middle class here that they turned to García.” For many, García was the lesser of two evils.
After the elections, many Peruvians comforted themselves with the idea that García simply couldn’t be as bad as he was last time, and that with him came the experience of other Aprista leaders. Some, like political columnist, Mirko Lauer, looked to the Aprista party as a source of strength. “You can’t forget we will have Peru’s largest party in command and that will help with stability,” he told the BBC.
The Aprista party once “espoused an anti-imperialist, Marxist oriented but uniquely Latin American-based solution to Peru’s and Latin America’s problems,” and influenced several political movements throughout Latin America, including Bolivia’s Nationalist Revolutionary Movement (MNR) and Costa Rica’s National Liberation Party (PLN). It is now seen as a party of the center-left (if left at all). Years of repression, secrecy, dominance and opportunistic ideological swings to the right by Aprista founder Víctor Raúl Haya de la Torre resulted in sectarian hierarchies, and the exodus of young leaders, and brought the party closer to the center. (Country Studies/Area Handbook Series, Library of Congress, 1986-1998). On November 19, the Apristas received a sound slap in the face in regional elections marred by violence and protests.
The regional presidencies (similar to governors), which control their own budgets and are somewhat autonomous of the national government, were taken by movements in opposition to traditional political parties, such as members of the Union for Peru Party, lead by Humala. The independent movements won in 22 of the 25 regional governments, a crushing victory over the governing PAP, which only retained three of the 12 administrations won in the 2002 elections. In one case, the Apristas lost a municipality that had voted Aprista for the last 40 years.
According to the Organization of American States (OAS), voting took place normally through out the country. Not all citizens were content to vote against candidates, though, and some were more inclined to prevent elections altogether. In spite of the OAS’ assertion, in many locations citizens met results with protests in response to unpopular re-elections and so-called “golondrino” votes, in which citizens voted in two locations.
Due to violence and lack of security, including the destruction of up to 1,000 election records, elections were suspended in several areas of the country—though those votes did not constitute 1% of the national votes,. The ministry of the interior denounced the destruction of electoral materials in towns and cities such as Puno, Piura, Cajamarca, La Libertad, Amazonas, Loreto, Ucayali, Lima, Huancavelica and Ayacucho. There was also violence in the areas of Huarochirí (Lima), Piura, La Libertad, Tumbes and Junín. On November 22, post-electoral violence lead President García to order the National Police and the Interior Ministry to use force, including arms, against so-called “vandalism,” which led to two deaths and up to 270 detentions across the country, (La República, Nov. 21, 24, 2006).
In many cases, election materials were not the only casualties of civil unrest. In the locations named and elsewhere, crowds of up to 1,000 protesters blockaded highways, took siege to and burned down city halls, attacked election officials, and took hostages. In one case, a soldier fleeing protesters fell off a cliff and died instantly, while in Cerro Azul, a citizen died during a protest. Clashes between the supporters of different parties also lead to violence and, in one case, a shoot out. Police responded by shooting tear gas at protesters, even when children were present. Human Rights Watch has detailed the past use of excessive force to quell demonstrations in Peru, and catalogues eleven demonstrators who died as a result of excessive use of lethal force by the police and army between 2000 and 2005. The president of the National Board of Elections, Enrique Mendoza, stated that in places where violence disturbed elections there wouldn’t be new elections, but penal processes instead.
Most voter dissatisfaction had to do with the re-election of mayors. In the Puente Piedra district of Lima, a large group of residents protesting the re-election of the mayor broke windows and doors of the municipal building, and burned a municipal motorcycle in protest. On November 24, Cléver Meléndez, the re-elected mayor of the town of Paucartambo, in Pasco, traveled to Lima to request protection from angry residents who he claimed were planning to lynch him. Some of the worst violence took place in Umachiri, Melgar, where the population protested against the re-election of mayor Róger Cáceres, and took an election official hostage for a short time. In radio reports, citizens accused Cáceres of paying for votes with money and food, as well as corruption in office, including the selling of medications donated by international aid institutions. Protesters reported harsh repression by armed forces and police, who they claimed shot at the crowd on election night. In Arequipa, elections were nullified based on charges that the re-elected candidate paid voters 10 soles (approximately $3.15) each to vote for him.
The elections showed little promise for stability under the Apristas, named for the American Popular Revolutionary Alliance (APRA), the party’s original name upon its founding in 1924. Javier Bedoya, spokesman for the conservative National Unity coalition led by Lourdes Flores, asserted that recent “electoral defeat of the government party…reinforces the impression that the APRA is nothing without García.” Still, instead of promising changes, some in the party refuse to see defeat. Prime Minister Jorge del Castillo stated: “The Peruvian Aprista Party is the only party that remains as a party of national dimension. Some other parties have virtually disappeared, others are becoming strictly watchdog organizations.” He asserted that the president still “has more than 60% approval.” It is most important “that people see clear leadership in the president,” he told reporters. Other Apristas, like the party’s leader in Parliament, Javier Velasquez Quesquén, admitted that party leadership has sometimes chosen the wrong candidates. (Living in Peru, Nov. 21).
Expert analyst for the organization Propuesta Cuidadana (Citizen Proposal) Eduardo Ballón said that the results expressed a “moment of the greatest weakness of the parties.” According to Ballón, the traditional parties don’t understand the meaning of the regional elections, aren’t dedicated to the construction of a serious constituency, and will face an even more adverse scenario in the 2011 elections. He explains the failure of the traditional parties as the result of three factors: “The incapacity of the national parties to have an active presence outside of Lima; the regions in the interior of the country’s rejection of the parties that call themselves national, but aren’t inclusive of those regions, which makes them be seen as Limans [from Lima]; and the fragmentation that can be observed in Peruvian society in general.” (La Republica, Nov 22).
These clashes combined with the anti-Aprista election results show Peruvian frustration with local corruption, and lack of access to justice. In the past few years, serious outbreaks of violence have occurred when irate townspeople vented their grievances against controversial local authorities, or when supporters of the authorities attacked critics. A 2004 report published by Human Rights Watch names seventy-seven municipalities affected by conflicts between townspeople and local governments. In April 2004, a mob lynched Cirilo Robles, the mayor of Ilave, Puno, and injured another official, both of whom citizens accused of corruption. “During the same month,” the report states, “men armed with planks, machetes, and other weapons attacked townspeople in Lagunas, on the Peruvian Amazon, injuring more than forty, some seriously. The townspeople had surrounded the town hall to prevent the mayor from evading an accounting audit. Local government corruption and the failure of the Peruvian justice system to investigate effectively allegations of corruption and abuse of power were contributory factors in such outbreaks of violence.”
Electoral violence is a sign that a population is not happy with elected leaders. In Peru, impoverished and indigenous populations are recognizing their exclusion from traditional electoral politics, and showing their dissatisfaction with their lack of representation. Alan García has another chance as president, but the events of the 2006 regional elections prove that Peruvians are wary—and may not be willing give him and the Apristas the chance that they were hoping for.
April Howard is a contributing editor at Upside Down World, an online magazine uncovering activism and politics in Latin America. She lives in Bolivia and recently traveled to Peru during the regional elections.
This story first appeared in Toward Freedom, December, 2006
“Peru still wary of Garcia’s past” BBC News, June 5, 2006
“Peru’s ruling APRA party mulls disappointing regional election results”
Living in Peru, Nov. 21, 2006
“Essential Background: Overview of Human Rights issues in Peru”
Human Rights Watch, World Report 2005
From our weblog:
“Peru: Ollanta Humala charged in ‘dirty war’ atrocity”
WW4 REPORT, Aug. 23, 2006
Reprinted by WORLD WAR 4 REPORT, Jan. 1, 2007
Reprinting permissible with attribution