Perú Decides: Keiko vs. Vero

Perú could be about to see an unprecedented all-female second round. But is Keiko as Fujimorista as her name? And is Vero as chavista as her reputation?

The last few months have witnessed three big blows to the left as a regional project in Latin America. First, Mauricio Macri won the presidency in Argentina defeating Peronismo after twelve years in power. Second, the wave of Brazilian corruption scandals, involving both Dilma and Lula, discredited the PT (Workers Party). Finally, Evo lost his bid to lift term limits in Bolivia, bringing to and end his hopes of hanging on to power indefinitely.

In this context, the success of Verónika Mendoza, the candidate of the left-wing Frente Amplio (FA), might be the surprise in today’s first round of presidential voting in Perú. In a crowded field, it is likely that Mrs. Mendoza – whom everyone calls Vero – will face a run-off with the frontrunner, Keiko Fujimori. This leaves Peruvians with the difficult decision of choosing between continuing the present economic model – endorsed by Keiko and Pedro Pablo Kuczynski (PPK)—and the “profound changes” proposed by Vero – whom some argue is a neo-chavista; a roja rojita, whom according to PPK, hasn’t achieved anything in her perra vida.

What do the Peruvian elections mean for Venezuela? Will they have an impact on Chavismo’s regional prospects? Can Vero slow the decline of the left in Latin America? Could she reverse it?

First things first: Keiko Fujimori is widely expected to win the most votes in Perú today, and by quite a margin. Keiko has run forthrightly as the heir of her dad, Alberto, who is currently serving a 25-year sentence for human rights violations during his time in office in the 1990s, notably for the massacres at Barrios Altos and La Cantuta. Fujimori is credited with ending the armed conflict against terrorism and stabilizing the Peruvian economy, which have legitimized support for Keiko’s campaign–that’s where her solid 30% comes from.

Keiko says she stands for continuity in economic policy. However, she faces strong resistance due to her role as virtual first lady during her father’s dictatorship. The Fujimori era still divides Peruvians: almost 300,000 women were forcibly sterilized and corruption was rampant. In Lima, this past Tuesday, April 5th, some 30,000 people marched against Keiko’s candidacy, chanting #KeikoNoVa, on the anniversary of Fujimori’s self-coup d’etat in 1992. Her negatives are high, and although she vows no more self-coups and not to help “any” member of her family, even if she wins the first round handily, a second-round win is not a given.

Verónika Mendoza, meanwhile, is on the rise on the basis of her calls for “radical change”. In recent days, Mendoza’s leftist Frente Amplio is in a dead-heat for second place in the polls with Pedro Pablo Kuczynski, the 77-year-old free-marketeering former banker in charge of Todos por el Kambio, but had all the momentum.

Similar to Chávez back in 1998, some of Vero’s proposals include introducing a new constitution, the expansion of state-oil-firm Petroperu, increasing the minimum wage, and imposing more control over the central bank. Vero also supports same-sex marriage, and is keen to review Free Trade Agreements and the government’s contracts concerning natural resources. She hasn’t really explained how she will finance her proposals. It’s clear she’d have trouble getting them through what’s likely to be an opposition-led Congress.

Throughout the campaign, Vero has been attacked as a neo-chavista. That’s a contentious label: there is no proven relationship between the 35-year-old congresswoman and the deceased Venezuelan president. She’s been at pains to deny the link, reassuring voters that she would not copy the chavista model. And Mendoza has criticized both Venezuela’s opposition and government, by calling them a “weak democracy”.

Most Peruvian candidates have been cautious with regard to Venezuela. Keiko celebrated the opposition victory in legislative elections last December, and has shown solidarity for political prisoners, including Leopoldo López. But, Mendoza has referred to López as a golpista, who represents an “undemocratic opposition.” These are the type of comments that have made camarada Mendoza look like a chavista, and raise suspicions that she’ll put Peru on track for commie failure.

Should Mendoza come second on Sunday’s elections, the runoff ballot on June 5th will be between two women, ensuring the election of Peru’s first female President. Two economic models will be competing, and the dilemma of continuity versus reform will reappear in a new scenario.

The irony here is that not that long ago, it was the outgoing incumbent, Ollanta Humala, who was supposed to incarnate the chavista threat in Perú. Hugo Chávez explicitly endorsed and allegedly financed Humala’s campaign in 2006, but the guy went moderate when elected five years later. He’s renounced much of his erstwhile hard-left rhetoric and has not worked closely with Venezuela during his term.

On the contrary, Humala continued the projects started by Alejandro Toledo and Alan García, and enjoyed economic growth from heavy investment by the private sector, foreign companies, and mining companies. That made him anathema to the left. Peru continued its free trade policy and has become an important member of APEC, the Pacific Alliance, and the soon-to-be-signed Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), while holding back from the new raft of Venezuela-sponsored regional bodies like ALBA, Unasur, and PetroSur.

In the context of increasing social conflict and decreasing commodity prices, Peru’s GDP growth has slowed. In a country that’s always been marked by high levels of poverty and inequality, Mendoza’s government would favor environmental laws and indigenous rights, stressing ambitious social policies.

Vero has refreshed the image of the Peruvian left and that could change the debate regarding politics in Latin America. Frente Amplio is an arroz con mango grouping left-leaning political parties, social movements, and labor unions. FA’s ideological heterogeneity could translate into ambiguous proposals. However, with a strong support for progressive social issues, Mendoza could represent a new wave for the more moderate left in Latin America.

Vero might have the opportunity to prove us wrong, and demonstrate that there can be a left without chavismo in Latin America. The image of Venezuela for Peruvians is not a positive one. It’s little wonder, with all the economic disarray in Venezuela, it’s not an especially attractive model for Peruvians at the moment. Humala saw the perils back in 2006, and that’s why he dropped his revolutionary style from 2006 and became a more moderate candidate in 2011, a shift he rode to the presidency.

Vero is aware of this. She could carry a left-leaning government without falling into corruption and the desire to perpetuate herself in power which have plagued Latin American politics over the past two decades, because the left in Latin America doesn’t always equal chavismo.