Peru: Peruvian populism

THE SECOND round run-off in Peru’s presidential elections illustrates the desperate need for a mass socialist alternative for the workers, peasants and downtrodden sections of the middle class and urban poor.

Neither contender offers a way out of the economic and social plight to which capitalism condemns the majority of the population. Both candidates, Alejandro Toledo and Alan Garcia, are accidental figures and reflect the current political vacuum. Despite coming from distinct political backgrounds, neither challenges ‘the market’.

As the Peruvian daily newspaper, La Republica, put it, the second round of voting ‘would not be won by the person who offered the most, rather by the one who did the least wrong’. The Spanish daily, El Mundo, summed up the situation when it said the campaign had been characterised by ‘a lack of debate and an aggressive tone which did little to restore the faith of Peruvian politics. Peru waits somewhere between Toledo’s populism and Garcia’s disaster’.

Both candidates have adopted their own brand of populism, which has a powerful tradition in Peru. They have been compelled to use ‘populist’ rhetoric because of the anger of the masses. During last year’s campaign against former president, Alberto Fujimori, Toledo presented himself as a champion of the poor, and for democracy in the struggle against Fujimori’s corrupt and authoritarian regime.

Fujimori managed to hang onto power for a few months after Toledo withdrew from the election, protesting, with justification, that it was going to be fixed. Following mass protests, a collapse of support and the withdrawal of US backing, Fujimori was forced to flee Peru in November 2000 and seek refuge in Japan.

During the current campaign, Toledo has promised the creation of 500,000 jobs a year. At the same time, he has made clear his support for the ‘free market’.. Despite his poor family background, Toledo is a safe candidate for capitalism and US imperialism. He graduated from San Francisco University, studied at Harvard and has worked for the United Nations (UN), the World Bank and the International Trade Organisation.

Toledo’s rhetoric is not new to Peru. Indeed, features of what a Toledo government will be like were seen in the Fujimori regime. Populist regimes, although sometimes taking measures against the immediate interests of capitalism or imperialism, have ended up attacking the exploited masses and defending capitalist interests, often in a brutal manner. Fujimori himself was swept to power on a similar basis in 1990, when he ousted the radical populist government of Garcia’s American Popular Revolutionary Alliance (APRA), which had ruled for the preceding five years.

APRA, founded in 1932, adopted a radical, nationalist, anti-imperialist policy and had suffered quite brutal repression by various military and right-wing governments. But despite having important support amongst sections of the working class and others exploited by capitalism, the leadership of APRA has been pro-capitalist, never supporting a socialist alternative.

Elected to power, for the first time, in 1985, Garcia’s APRA government took some radical measures, even nationalising a number of private banks at one stage. In one instance, when the owners refused to accept this decree, a tank was ordered into the bank. Garcia’s government also attempted to declare a moratorium on payment of interest charges on the foreign debt.

These radical measures were enough to bring Garcia into conflict with the interests of US imperialism and sections of the Peruvian ruling class, but APRA had no programme to break with capitalism and imperialism. Corruption and sleaze enveloped the government and a massive economic crisis developed. Hyperinflation, which reached more than 7,000% per year, and mass unemployment, resulted in a near social collapse. Civil war ravaged the countryside as Sendero Luminoso and other guerrilla organisations grew as a consequence of the social catastrophe. Thousands of people were killed as a result of repression by the army, and attacks by Sendero Luminoso and other guerrilla and terrorist organisations.

By the end of his presidency, support for Garcia was down to 5% in opinion polls and he fled into exile amid charges of corruption. It was against this background that Fujimori came to power, promising to stamp out terrorism and improve living standards. To begin with, he was able to win some support from significant sections of the urban poor. However, Fujimori’s regime rapidly assumed an authoritarian character and in true bonapartist manner he balanced between the different classes and increased repressive measures.

Even the authoritarian measures, which included closing down the National Congress in 1992, initially enjoyed some support. This was largely a reaction to the violence which rocked the country and was a major factor in him winning re-election in 1995, with 64% of the vote. Sendero Luminoso was not only at war with the army. It brutally put down workers, socialists and trade unionists who were against its methods and policies. In factories, trade union activists who opposed Sendero Luminoso were often executed or ‘disappeared’.

Fujimori used this to justify his repressive measures which, in turn, were used against workers and students who opposed his regime. Vicious labour laws were used against trade unions. ‘Communism’ was banned in the universities and the army was stationed on some campuses to ‘fight terrorism and Sendero’.

As mass poverty increased, and corruption and repression developed, opposition to Fujimori became more and more widespread. The scale of corruption has been exposed by the recent publication of hundreds of hours of videotape secretly filmed by Fujimori’s master spy, Vladimoro Montesinos. Montesinos headed the ‘counter-insurgency operation’ against Sendero Luminoso and declared war against drug traffickers.

Footage includes Montesinos piling up £400,000 on his desk to pay a TV executive to pull the plug on a radical current affairs programme. Montesinos allegedly built up a fortune of £700 million from arms trading and deals with drug traffickers! Two hundred former judges, generals, ex-cabinet members and other state officials now face corruption charges.

Toledo was catapulted to the head of the anti-Fujimori movement because of the lack of an alternative. Yet even before the second round, Toledo has also been implicated in corruption scandals involving prostitution and cocaine. The widespread skepticism towards all political leaders is reflected in one poll which indicated that over 20% do not know who to vote for. An office cleaner was reported as saying, ‘What’s the point of voting? They’re all liars and crooks’.

Garcia has risen from the ashes and is getting 26% support in the polls. This partly reflects the vacuum which exists and the perception some people have of his opposition to neo-liberal policies. Despite adopting a populist stance, however, Garcia has reassured big business that he has learnt from the ‘excesses’ of the 1980s. The memory of the profound crisis during his government and his failure to offer any real alternative will prevent Garcia winning this election.

The mass opposition which developed against the Fujimori regime clearly indicates that workers and young people are recovering from the effects of the social collapse of the 1980s and 1990s.. They are beginning to look for a viable alternative. A new government led by Toledo will not be a direct repetition of the Fujimori administration. It will be a much weaker regime from the beginning. The task for the workers, peasants and youth of Peru is to build a revolutionary socialist alternative that can begin the task of overthrowing landlordism and capitalism and building socialism.

This appeared in the May edition of Socialism Today, monthly magazine of the Socialist Party, British section of the CWI

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September 2001