The 1990 Campaign and Elections

Peru Table of Contents

Although Alberto Fujimori was elected by a large popular margin, he had no organized or institutionalized base of support. There were countless theories as to why Fujimori was able to rise from virtual anonymity to the national presidency in the course of three months. More than anything else, the Fujimori tsunami, as it was called, was a rejection of all established political parties: the right, despite its refurbished image; the squabbling and hopelessly divided far left; and certainly the left-of-center APRA because of its disastrous performance in government. Fujimori was able to capture the traditional support base of APRA: small entrepreneurial groups and those sectors of the middle class for whom APRA was no longer an acceptable alternative, but for whom the conservative Fredemo was also unacceptable. In addition, Fujimori's success was attributed largely to a great deal of support at the grassroots level.

After serving as a UNA rector and host of a popular television program called "Concertando," Fujimori entered politics in 1989, running on a simple, if vague, platform of "Work, Honesty, and Technology." His appeal had several dimensions. First, his experience as an engineer, rather than a politician, and his lack of ties to any of the established parties clearly played into his favor. APRA's incoherent conduct of government had led to an economic crisis of unprecedented proportions; at the same time, the polarized political debate and the derogatory mudslinging that characterized the electoral campaign did not seem to offer any positive solutions. The right preached free-market ideology with a fervor and made little attempt to appeal to the poor. The left was hopelessly divided and unable to provide a credible alternative to the failure of "heterodox" economic policy. Thus, not only APRA was discredited, but so were all established politicians.

In addition, and key to his popular appeal, were Fujimori's nonelite origins as the son of Japanese immigrants. His Japanese ties also aroused some hopes, whether realistic or not, that in the event of his victory the Japanese would extend substantial amounts of aid to Peru. He capitalized on Vargas Llosa's lack of appeal to the poor by promising not to implement a painful "shock" economic adjustment program to end inflation, and with slogans like "un presidente como tú" ("a president like you"). The claim of this first-generation Japanese-Peruvian that he was just like the majority in a predominantly mestizo and native American nation seemed less than credible, and his vague promises of "gradually" ending hyperinflation seemed glibly unrealistic. Nevertheless, his message was much more palatable to an already severely impoverished population than Vargas Llosa's more realistic but bluntly phrased calls for a shock austerity program to end inflation. "El shock" had become a common term in the electoral campaign and among all sectors of society.

Fujimori's success was also enhanced by his rather eclectic political team, Cambio '90, which was extremely active in campaigning at the grassroots level. Cambio had an appeal at this level precisely because it was an unknown entity, and was not affiliated with the traditional political system.

In the first round of elections, Vargas Llosa attained 28.2 percent of the vote; Fujimori, 24.3 percent; the APRA, 19.6 percent; IU, 7.1 percent; and ASI, 4.1 percent. Null and blank votes were 14.4 percent of the total. It was then clear that the left and APRA would back Fujimori, if for no other reason than to defeat Vargas Llosa in the second round. Vargas Llosa was seen as a representative of the traditional, conservative elite, and thus was unacceptable for ideological reasons. In Luis Alva Castro's words to APRA: "Compañeros (partners), our support for Fujimori is a given, but there is no need to make an institutional commitment." A similar stance was taken by the left.

The support of the left and APRA virtually guaranteed Fujimori's victory in the second round, but it by no means signified an organized or institutionalized support base, either inside or outside Congress, which presented a formidable obstacle for an already uncertain future for the Fujimori government. The electoral campaign, meanwhile, was waged in extremely negative and ad hominem terms, and took on both racial and class confrontational overtones. It became a struggle between the "rich whites" and the "poor Indians," exacerbating the existing polarization in the system. The political mudslinging and personal attacks, first by Fredemo against APRA and President García, and then between the Fujimori and Vargas Llosa teams, offended the average voter.

The conduct of the 1990 electoral campaign, in conjunction with the prolonged period of political polarization that preceded it, severely undermined faith in the established system and the political parties and leaders that were a part of it. This, more than anything else, played into the hands of Fujimori, and was responsible for his victory. In the second round, he attained 56.5 percent of the vote over 33.9 percent for Vargas Llosa on June 10, 1990.

The Fujimori government came to power without a coherent team of advisers, a program for governing, or any indication of who would hold the key positions in the government. Fujimori's advisers were from diverse sides of the political spectrum, and he made no clear choices among them, as they themselves admitted. At the same time, he made it clear that he would re-establish relations with the international financial community, and that he was not interested in a radical economic program. How he would reconcile those goals, in the context of hyperinflation, with his promise not to implement a shock-stabilization plan was the cause of a great deal of uncertainty.

The 1990 electoral results reflected a total dissatisfaction and lack of faith on the part of the populace in traditional politicians and parties. Fredemo's dogmatic and heavy-handed campaign was partially to blame for undermining that faith, as were a succession of weak or inept governments for the past several decades. Yet, in the short-term, the disastrous failure of APRA, the country's only well-institutionalized political party, was most directly to blame. The results of the 1990 elections merely demonstrated the exacerbation that occurred from 1985 to 1990 of a preexisting breach between state and society in Peru. The rejection of traditional parties did not necessarily reflect a rejection of the democratic system. Instead, it reflected an ongoing evolution of participation occurring outside the realm of traditional political institutions, as well as the increased importance of autonomous local groups and the informal economy.

The 1990 electoral results also indicated a crisis of representation. Political parties play a fundamental representative role in virtually all consolidated democracies; their utility in formulating and channeling demands in both directions--from society to state and state to society--is an irreplaceable one. In Peru, as in many developing countries, demands on the state for basic services had clearly outpaced its ability to respond. Thus, the role of parties in channeling those demands, and--through the party platform or doctrine--indicating their relative importance, was critical. How Fujimori would govern a fragmented and polarized political system without an institutionalized party base remained unclear at best.

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Source: U.S. Library of Congress