Argument

An expert's point of view on a current event.

Peru’s Election Is About to Make Its Problems Worse

This weekend’s vote will deepen the pandemic-ravaged country’s impasse.

By , an associate professor of Political Science at the University of Chicago.
Supporters of Hernando de Soto attend a campaign rally.
Supporters of Peruvian presidential candidate for the Avanza País party, Hernando de Soto, attend a campaign rally in Villa El Salvador district on the outskirts of Lima, on April 5. ERNESTO BENAVIDES/AFP via Getty Images

One thing is clear ahead of Peru’s national elections this weekend: It’s likely to leave the country less functional than before. Peruvians are disgusted with the system and won’t back any presidential candidate in sizable numbers. Whomever is the winner, Peru’s new president is going to face an impossible task of governing effectively without a majority in Congress. And he or she will do so amid a raging pandemic that has slipped out of the government’s control and has laid bare the inequality underpinning the country’s more than two decades of spectacular economic growth.

The election follows a litany of corruption scandals. Peru’s last regularly elected president, Pedro Pablo Kuczynski, was forced to resign and is awaiting trial on corruption and money laundering charges. His replacement, Martín Vizcarra, was impeached by a cynical and self-serving Congress and then caught up in a vaccine scandal. Congress briefly elevated Vizcarra’s parliamentary antagonist, Manuel Merino, to the presidency. But Merino was run out of office by massive street demonstrations. His replacement, current President Francisco Sagasti, was chosen as a respected centrist to steer the country to new elections.

Executive corruption in Peru is only rivaled by Congress: More than half of its members, spread widely across the parties, face investigations for corruption. Voters will be glad to throw incumbents out of office in elections that run concurrently with the presidential election. But it is far from clear that a new body will be cleaner or more effective than the current one. Many politicians win votes by doling out favors to voters and cultivating business ties that leave them indebted to special interests.

Polling for the presidential election remains highly uncertain. There are 18 candidates that range from the extreme left to far right and cover everything in between. Yonhy Lescano, a candidate for Acción Popular who represents the left faction of the big tent, center-right party, has a bare lead over the pack. But even he is unlikely to garner much more than 15 percent of the vote, failing to clear the 50 percent threshold for an outright win and thus forcing a second-round election. The plurality of voters either don’t know who they will support or will cast blank or spoiled ballots as a show of disgust with the system.

The lack of political consensus in Peru, or even a clear axis of competition, is a sign of the country’s multiplying crises. The COVID-19 pandemic has run rampant in the country. It is now averaging more than 8,000 new infections per day and more than 200 deaths. Since the pandemic’s onset, Peru’s infection rate is on par with other hard-hit countries in the region like Brazil and Chile. And its per capita death rate is similar to that of the United States.

This has exposed a threadbare health care system. Far too many Peruvians have difficulty accessing care. Medical personnel are scarce in rural regions, and the pandemic got off to a quick start in the country due to a shortage of medical supplies and protective equipment.

The fact that the economy is reliant on labor from the informal sector complicates these problems. Informal sector workers often live in densely packed informal housing. Many of them lack access to clean water and sewage systems. While the poor suffer the brunt of the virus and economic pain, politicians and their well-connected family and friends secretly got access to the country’s first vaccine doses in a scandal that was dubbed “vaccine-gate.”

Equally important is the fact that Peru’s party system is highly fractured and unstable. Parties often form around outsized personalities like that of Keiko Fujimori, a former dictator’s daughter who is running for the presidency through the Fuerza Popular party. Political ideologies take a back seat to these personalities. There are not clear and consistent ideological axes of political competition. Issues like the state’s role in government and the importance of social values, while important and debated, are not decisive. The result is small parties often position themselves as kingmakers in Congress in exchange for getting their way on powerful appointments or pet issues.

Presidents struggle to govern under these circumstances. Kuczynski’s resignation in 2018 came on the back of leaked videos showing the president’s allies trying to buy support from congressional opposition members.

If there is one predictable consequence of this impending executive-congressional stalemate, it is this: more political instability. The new executive’s inability to get things done through political compromise will provide strong temptations to engage in shady deal-making. Corruption scandals will mount as a result.

Meanwhile, the country still has no clear way out of the pandemic. While neighboring Chile is vaccinating its population at impressive rates, Peru—which failed to negotiate early vaccine deals—has only inoculated about 2 percent of its population. In March, the country got its first batch of Pfizer vaccines with more promised, but the rollout is likely to be rocky. Health infrastructure remains weak, and the informal status of many workers will complicate delivery.

The country’s economy is struggling as a result. It cratered 11.1 percent last year, worse than the regional average in spite of aggressive fiscal measures to support the economy. This year promises a considerable rebound but one that depends heavily on a successful vaccine rollout.

This is a harsh backdrop for the incoming president. Short-term pitfalls are legion, and payoffs to getting public policies right are distant. Any of the current candidates would likely struggle to finish out their term in office. The odds are further reduced by a constitutional clause that enables Congress to remove a president for “moral incapacity.” The clause opens the door to politically motivated impeachment.

Peru needs strong leadership to guide the country back to its trajectory toward becoming an upper-middle income country. This election will not deliver that. Public confidence in government is likely to further deteriorate as a result. Investors may start to get skittish. All of this makes the next president’s job—whoever that may be—that much harder.

Michael Albertus is an associate professor of Political Science at the University of Chicago. He is author, most recently, of Authoritarianism and the Elite Origins of Democracy.