[SCMP Column] Quiet Comfort from Peru

June 13, 2016

Seeing virally-infected democratic systems going haywire in just about every direction worldwide, I found quiet comfort in the presidential election results emerging last week from tiny, distant Peru.

Both radical leftists fell a month ago at the first round “hurdle” of the Presidential election. And in the run-off last week against the charismatic Keiko Fujimori, the electorate opted (albeit by a tiny margin) for the rather dull but hugely experienced Pedro Pablo Kuczynski to replace the very mediocre leftist Ollanta Humala as president for the next five years.

It would be difficult to find a better case study of democracy working as we all hope it could work. Despite dreadful domestic hardships in Peru triggered by the global recession, and huge falls in export earnings from Peru’s mainly-commodity economy, the electorate baulked at populist or protectionist “solutions”, and instead voted for a textbook technocrat who on paper is as well-qualified to run a country as anyone I recall. Kuczynski, who is already 77 years old, first came to South America with his Polish-German father, who ran a leper colony in the Amazon. He studied at Oxford and Princeton. He worked as an economist at the World Bank. He has previously served as Peru’s finance minister, mining minister and prime minister. His election campaign targeted the moderate political centre in Peru, promising economic growth and social investment.

Pitched against a dull, reliable and experienced Kuczynski (people call him PPK because his name is so painfully difficult to remember) was Keiko Fujimori, daughter of Alberto Fujimori, who first ran for presidency in 2011. While Keiko has over the past five years built deep support among Peru’s rural poor, she has from the outset been dogged by “anti-Fujimorismo” – the controversial legacy of her disgraced father, who is remembered as an autocratic president who in 2000 challenged a Congressional impeachment by sending tanks and soldiers to shut down the country’s Congress. After fleeing into exile in Japan, Fujimori senior was eventually extradited back to Peru in 2007, tried and convicted for illegal search, and then in 2009 sentenced to 25 years in prison for human rights violations linked with an alleged role in killings and kidnappings by the Grupo Colina death squad.

Despite his excesses, Alberto Fujimori is still respected by many in Peru as the man who purged the country of the chaotic and traumatising years of the Shining Path, a brutal Maoist group led by Abimael Guzman, restoring stability and putting the country back onto a growth path that has been sustained ever since.

While I am too distant from Peru and its politics to be sure, my sense is that Keiko was pipped at the post by PPK not just because of legacy concerns that she might have inherited some of her father’s autocratic genes, but because it seemed clear that the Fujimoris were in the process of creating the kind of political dynasty that sends shivers down many democratic spines. Not only has Keiko Fujimori’s Fuerza Popular party been for some time a dominant force in Peru’s Congress, controlling 70 out of 130 seats, but her younger brother Kenji was recently elected as a lawmaker, and has said he plans to run for presidential office in 2021.

Of course, Peru is a tiny country, and its politics are hardly epicentral to global political trends, but I see valuable political lessons here as I watch British politicians fomenting xenophobia and racism in a lunatic debate over possible exit from the European Union, and – even worse – offensive megalomaniac thuggism in the form of Donald Trump capturing the imaginations of millions of Americans who really ought to know better.

Peruvians have opted for dull but reliable for very good reason. They have only too recently tasted the traumas of Shining Path butchery and of Fujimori’s brutal authoritarianism to be willing to flirt with any other option any time soon. By contrast, perhaps Americans have lived so long with stable and moderate democratic politics that they have no sense of what havoc a maverick megalomanic could wreak – either at home or abroad. In Britain too, the moderate middle seems to have lost any sense of the dangerous terrain they have sleep-walked into. The idea that a crazy politician or politicians could inflict real and extensive harm seems too remote. Complacent confidence rests on an assumption that our political systems are so hedged in by “checks and balances” that a crazy leader would be prevented from inflicting true harm. Peruvian voters, given quite awful recent memories, live under no such illusion.

PPK’s margin of victory was perilously small, and his efforts to wrestle technocratically with the very serious cyclical and structural challenges his economy faces can easily be filibustered by the Fujimorista majority in Congress, but the common sense of Peru’s voters is cause for quiet celebration in otherwise troubling times for those who trust in democracy as a political arrangement superior to other options. As the renowned Peruvian journalist Gustavo Gorriti (who was arrested and persecuted during the Fujimori years, and forced into exile) commented last week: “Democracy and common sense have won. Not because of PPK, but thanks to the biggest party in today’s Peru – those citizens who abhor dictatorship.”

I wonder if on June 24 we will be able to say that democracy and common sense have won in the UK too? Even more important, I wonder whether Americans will before November awake from their malign and self-deluding hypnosis, realise the dangerous path the megalomaniac Pied Piper Trump is leading them along, and ensure democracy and common sense wins. Democracy needs common sense. And it needs citizens who abhor and fear dictatorship. In Peru, PPK may be a dull and uncharismatic choice, but we can be confident that he will not willfully inflict harm on his own economy, or his own people. Hillary Clinton may be an inspiration to few, but I also believe she will not inflict willful harm. I am not an American, and I have no vote, but from my vantage point, the choice is clear: uninspiring is good.
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