Thursday, March 2, 2006

Another Presidenta for South America?

-Taylor Kirk

When Michelle Bachelet was elected the first female president of Chile in January pundits considered the event an example of Latin America’s departure from the historical macho stereotype. The lads of South America’s political class will have to keep on their toes, as Peruvian voters are set to elect their first female president on April 9th.

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That day, voters in the Andean nation will go to the polls to replace the widely unpopular President Alejandro Toledo. Lourdes Flores Nano, a Congresswoman of the conservative Popular Christian Party, is ahead of two prominent leftist candidates (and many others whose probable vote will remain in the single digits). Though staunchly pro-business, she has made a significant effort to assure the Peruvian poor that they will not be forgotten under an economically liberal administration. She has a top-notch campaign underway, led by Gloria ‘Glorisa’ Ramirez, former campaign manager for Alvaro Uribe and Andres Pastrana, the President and ex-President of Colombia, respectively.

Flores’ candidacy resembles Bachelet’s beyond representing a common gender. Bachelet’s being a woman was hardly the only thing that made her stand out; she is divorced (a practice legalized in Chile only in 2004), an agnostic (in an overwhelmingly Catholic country) and a single mother of three. Flores is similarly an atypical Peruvian woman, as she has never been married and has no children. Though Bachelet is not Latin America’s first female leader, she is the first to come to office independently, without riding on the coattails of a husband or other relative. If Flores were to win, she would be the second.

Polling numbers are not as favorable for Flores as they were for Bachelet at this stage in her campaign, but she is still the front-runner with 33% of the probable vote, according to polling firm Apoyo. The increasingly controversial Ollanta Humala finds himself in second place with 26%, in a statistical tie with former president Alan García. Accusations of human rights violations have plagued Humala’s campaign from the beginning, which worsened when a fifth person filed criminal complaints against him earlier this month. Humala was serving in the Peruvian army in 1992, fighting the country’s protracted war against the Maoist Shining Path rebels. It was at this time that the army allegedly carried out murders and kidnappings of civilians in the northern jungle town of Tocache, an operation that residents claim was lead by Ollanta Humala, using the nom de guerre ‘Captain Carlos’. Humala has denied the allegations, but admits that he was in Tocache at the time and that he used the nickname, which he claims was also used by several other military commanders.

Though prosecutors are still looking into the claims the evidence is damning enough to convince a weary public that Humala was up to no good. As the plaintiffs begin public testimony the details will be shocking enough to associate Humala with the atrocities in the public’s mind, whether or not he is guilty. Human rights groups have offered to pay the legal bills of those filing criminal complaints, so the scandal has virtually no chance of being swept under the rug before April 9th.

Flores is unlikely to acquire the majority she needs to avoid a runoff, but polls indicate that she would easily defeat García or Humala in a runoff. As a cautionary note, recent trends in Latin American polling activities have shown the leftist vote repeatedly underestimated, which may result in a closer race than expected. Election watchers experienced this in the Bolivian election in December and the recent elections in Costa Rica. Evo Morales easily won a race that pollsters had predicted would be much tighter, with the same phenomenon producing the reverse effect in Costa Rica, where Oscar Arias was set to win by a ten point margin that turned out to be less than 0.5%.

Barring a catastrophe, Peru will have her first female president this year. Though this milestone will by no means cure the nation’s many woes it is an important step for women’s rights in the region, and an example for the rest of the world. More pragmatically, her campaign leads one to believe that she will have the courage to oversee important economic reforms while keeping in mind that a swift and complete adoption of neoliberal policies has seldom worked in Latin America. Only when she has taken office will we be able to judge the implementation of her policies, and whether eschewing the lads for a lady president will bring Peru the competent leader the country needs.

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