Whether or not underdog Peruvian presidential candidate Pedro Pablo Kuczynski can hold on to his surprise razor-thin lead over opponent Keiko Fujimori, the biggest winners from last weekend’s election are the Peruvian people and, more broadly, the citizens of Latin America. That’s because both candidates are pragmatic, market-friendly democrats — the polar opposite of the kind of radical populists that are fast wearing out their welcome elsewhere in the region.
But even with no ideological chasm separating the final two candidates, there was no shortage of drama in the election. The 41-year-old Keiko Fujimori is the daughter of former president Alberto Fujimori, whose ten-year reign (1990–2000) began with a smashing military victory over the vicious, narco-guerrilla army Sendero Luminoso. But Fujiimori’s administration soon descended into a corrupt authoritarianism that left many Peruvians scarred and bitter. (He is currently serving a 25-year prison sentence without parole on charges of corruption and human-rights abuses.)
During Fujimori’s tenure, after her parents divorced, Keiko Fujimori stood in as Peru’s first lady, but she soon built her own career in democratic politics. For many Peruvians, her candidacy stirred nostalgia for her father’s no-quarter approach to security issues, and for his free-market policies that tamed hyper-inflation and produced solid growth.
Her opponent, the 77-year-old Kuczynski, is the son of a Jewish-Polish immigrant. PPK, as he is widely known, is very familiar to U.S. officials. A former World Bank official, Wall Street banker, and finance minister, he is a Princeton-educated economist who has lived many years in the U.S. and is married to an American. He is a fiscal conservative, a free-trader, and a technocrat.
Heading into the election, however, PPK was decidedly the underdog. Fujimori had won the first round of the election by a whopping 40 percent over the second-place PPK’s 22 percent. But PPK was able to overcome the difference in the final weeks of the campaign by turning the election into a referendum on her father’s discredited legacy. At the same time, Fujimori was hit hard by news reports that one of her leading campaign officials was under investigation for money-laundering.
PPK evidently struck a chord when he emphasized the problematic Fujimori legacy. At the last minute, the leading leftist vote-getter in the first round endorsed him, throwing up to 19 percent of the vote his way.
Still, it’s not quite clear sailing for PPK, even if his lead holds. Ms. Fujimori’s party won 73 of 130 seats in the unicameral congress in April, compared with just 18 for Kuczynski’s party. It would demand all of PPK’s skills to build a governing consensus from among both fujimoristas and his late-supporting leftists. But the important thing is that he would be operating within moderate bounds, with none of the extremism characteristic of other governments in the region.
Indeed, with this election, Peru becomes the latest country in Latin America to shun the radical politics of the late Venezuela firebrand Hugo Chávez and his ilk. Voters have opted instead for business-friendly pragmatists who have pledged to respect the free market, adopt prudent fiscal policies, and pursue open trade regimes.
Last December, voters in Argentina ended a decade of populism under Nestor and Cristina Kirchner in favor of businessman Mauricio Macri, while voters in Venezuela ended the ruling chavista party’s control of the legislature. In Brazil, lawmakers recently voted to impeach leftist president Dilma Rousseff for manipulating the financial books in the run-up to her reelection. In Ecuador and Bolivia, as well, the bloom is off the populist rose.
It was only a matter of time: Collapsing prices for oil, slowing Chinese economic growth (meaning less demand for commodities that fueled Latin economies for more than a decade), and, critically, rampant economic mismanagement among these governments have all brought about a reckoning. Indeed, instead of using the windfalls from oil and the Chinese buying binge to build resilient economies, the populists simply poured them into unsustainable spending programs — with disastrous results past the short term.
This is good news for the people of Latin America — and for the United States. It provides an excellent opportunity to once again raise our relations to an adult level. Now we can search for mutually beneficial solutions to modern-day challenges.
Unfortunately, the Obama administration is so consumed with defending its efforts to normalize U.S. relations with retrograde Cuba that it can muster little will to take advantage of the changing political winds in Latin America. We can only hope the next U.S. president has a better sense of strategic priorities.