Humala: Peru’s Lame Duck Quacks On

Patricio Navia

Buenos Aires Herald, August 26, 2014


When he was elected in 2011, many Peruvians feared that Ollanta Humala would join the ranks of left-wing Latin American leaders determined to dismantle the market-friendly neoliberal economic model in place in most of the region since the mid-1990s.


Three years into his administration, Humala has indeed turned out to be a disappointment, but for different reasons. This week, as he tries to secure a confidence vote for his sixth president of the Council of Ministers, Humala is increasingly looking like a lame duck. Facing deteriorating economic conditions, Peru will have to endure the next two years without effective leadership at presidential level.


Given his prior military and political career, Humala was expected to be anything but a weak president. He stormed into the public arena in 2000 when he attempted an unsuccessful military revolt against Alberto Fujimori, the democratically-elected president who turned into a dictator and implemented the market-friendly reforms that turned Peru into an economic miracle after democratic rule was restored in 2000.


After Fujimori’s fall in 2000, Humala was granted amnesty and continued his military career until he was forced to retire in 2004. Espousing a strong nationalist and confusingly populist rhetoric, he launched his presidential campaign in 2006. Criticized by his opponents as a puppet of Hugo Chávez, Humala ended up finishing above his rivals in the first round vote but lost a runoff against former president Alan García. Without a disciplined political party, Humala almost disappeared from the public sight during the García administration (2006-2011).


In 2011, with an equally confusing nationalist and populist platform, but having distanced himself from the Latin American Bolivarian left championed by Hugo Chávez, Humala won the presidential election. Drawing support from the growing lower middle-class who feared the alternative represented by Keiko Fujimori, the daughter of the former president, Humala became president.


Once in office, he quickly put to bed fears that he would abandon the market-friendly economic model. Though he maintained a strong nationalist and anti-corruption rhetoric, Humala did not significantly deviate from his predecessors’ paths with his economic and social policies. He implemented an ambitious public works plan that included a much-needed subway in Lima, Peru’s capital. But his administration quickly showed that it lacked a clear roadmap and wasn’t sure what he wanted to accomplish in his administration.


The most revealing evidence of the lack of a plan has been the fragility of Humala’s cabinets. With two more years to go into his five-year term, Humala has already appointed six different people to the position of President of the Council of Ministers, the most important position in the Cabinet. Though cabinet instability is common in Peru, Humala has set a new record. His two predecessors, Alan García and Alejandro Toledo, had five different presidents of the Council of Ministers. If he keeps of shuffling cabinets at this speed, Humala will have as many as García and Toledo combined.


As Peruvians get into the electoral mood with the upcoming municipal elections later this year, Humala looks increasingly weak. His Gana Perú coalition has little presence in municipal governments. Even if his party had managed to field more candidates for mayoral races, the president’s plummeting approval numbers would not help much. Though past Peruvian presidents have struggled with their approval, Humala is unique in that his numbers have fallen despite the fact that he has avoided the type of scandals that tainted his predecessors. People no longer approve of him because he has made mistakes. They increasingly disapprove of him because they believe he has done very little.


As people begin to think about the 2016 presidential election, Humala also seems to lack a plan. His wife, Nadine Heredia, is more popular than him and would make a strong candidate. But according to some constitutional scholars, incumbent presidents’ spouses are banned from running. The fact that Nadine Heredia is widely perceived as Humala’s most influential adviser has also resulted in many people blaming her for the repeated cabinet crises during his administration.


Former president Alan García and Keiko Fujimori, the woman whom Humala defeated in 2011, lead presidential voting intention polls. If either of them wins, Humala will suffer a setback. It is true that no incumbent Peruvian president has succeeded in seeing his or her chosen candidate win a presidential election, but Humala might end up with not even a candidate in the 2016 race.


Congress is expected to narrowly pass a confidence vote on the new Cabinet today, provided that Humala agrees to replace a couple of names. Since Gana Perú needs the support of some of the many opposition groups in the unicameral legislature, Humala has been forced to make multiple concessions to secure passage of the confidence vote.


Yet, at the end of the day, today’s vote will not matter much. There are few hopes that the new Cabinet will last much longer than the previous ones. Even if it were to last, Humala is in such a weak position that he will hardly be able to do in his last two years in office what he has not accomplished so far.