All politics is family for Humala

Patricio Navia

Buenos Aires Herald, March 18, 2014


Peruvian President Ollanta Humala is in the middle of his worst political and popularity crisis halfway into his five-year term.

The political involvement of his wife, Nadine Heredia, has caused the otherwise disperse opposition to unify against the government.

Though Humala will likely survive the crisis, he might well turn into an early lame duck president, following the same footsteps of his two predecessors.

When Humala came close to winning the presidency in his first try in 2006, his wife (born in 1976, 14 years younger than her husband) was an electoral asset. While the former military officer was perceived as aggressive and combative, Heredia was his smiling and enthusiastic companion. Together with their two children, Heredia humanized Humala and allowed him to claim he understood well most Peruvians’ everyday realities. The fact that Heredia gave birth to their third child months before the 2011 election also helped the former coup-plotter and army officer —implicated by human rights organizations in past abuses — mount a campaign as a normal Peruvian interested in forging a better future for his family.

After he took power, however, Heredia has increasingly become a liability as much as an asset. Perceived as the most influential presidential advisor and having done little to counter those perceptions, she has been a vocal voice to shore up support for her husband among poor Peruvians. Though the Constitution prevents a president’s direct relatives from running for office — and bans immediate presidential re-election — several Humala allies have floated the idea that Heredia would make a competitive presidential candidate in 2016. She has repeatedly stated that she has no intention of running, but the otherwise upfront and direct woman has not been convincing in her denials. Besides, Humala’s party, Partido NacionalistaPeruano, has nobody more popular than her for 2016.

The current political crisis for Humala was triggered by Heredia’s political involvement and alleged political ambitions. Three weeks ago, Humala sacked his Cabinet and replaced his prime minister. Admittedly, cabinet crises that involve the resignation of the prime minister (formally called President of the Ministers’ Council) are common in Peru. Former president Alan García sacked his prime minister four times. Humala himself had already done it three times before this last Cabinet shuffle.

This time, the political bump deteriorated into a crisis. The Constitution requires the unicameral legislature to ratify the new Cabinet. That normally happens after some horse-trading and concessions to different opposition parties. This time, things played out differently. Last Friday, Congress failed to give its nod to the new Cabinet, as a majority of opposition legislators abstained from voting.

The new Cabinet is perceived as being too close to Heredia and the vote has turned into a rejection of her growing political power. Congress will have to vote again later this week, and will likely eventually ratify Humala’s designees. But the crisis mode will not vanish so easily.

Humala’s supporters and some independent observers — including Mario Vargas Llosa, the acclaimed Nobel Prize-winning Peruvian novelist and a free-market advocate who pens an influential syndicated weekly column — have accused the opposition of being obstructionist and using anti-democratic practices. Opposition leaders reckon that they want to use their constitutional prerogative to make sure that Heredia’s influence is constrained.

The fact that former president Alan García (2006-2011) — who aspires to run again in 2016 — is behind the move to block the Cabinet ratification has added fuel to the political fire. If the Constitution were to be modified (or reinterpreted), Heredia and García could end up facing each other in 2016.

The diverse opposition’s unity against Heredia’s growing influence also points to an early race for the next presidential election.

Keiko Fujimori, the daughter of former president Alberto Fujimori (1990-2001) and also a likely contender in 2016, has joined Alan García’s APRA party to curtail Heredia’s power. Former president Alejandro Toledo (2001-2006), a former Humala ally in Congress, and his party have also joined the opposition ranks. Though Toledo has been severely weakened by corruption scandals, his party seems convinced that it stands a better electoral chance being in the opposition to Humala.

The fact that Humala has only 27 percent approval — his lowest since he assumed in 2011, but still higher than García or Toledo at comparable times — also makes being in the opposition more attractive. The several presidential hopefuls in the opposition are joining forces to weaken Nadine Heredia. However, if the current crisis galvanizes into a polarization around her alleged presidential aspirations, the opposition will risk victimizing the first lady and handing her a platform to build on for 2016.

To get his Cabinet confirmed, and avoid turning himself into an early lame duck, Humala has apparently chosen to reduce tensions and make some concessions to the opposition.

However, if the Peruvian presidential couple come to believe that Heredia stands a good chance of being elected president in 2016, Humala and his wife might be willing to put up a fight even if that means that the president will spend a good part of his last two years in office with little support in Congress.