Can Humala defy gravity?

Update 155. 11 February 2013

 The apparent popularity of the presidential couple, Ollanta Humala and Nadine Heredia, is something of an oddity in Peruvian politics. Eighteen months after taking office, Humala’s approval rating is over 55 per cent – and rising. That of Nadine, the first lady, is even higher. At this stage in the presidential terms of Humala’s two predecessors, Alejandro Toledo (2001-06) and Alan García, their popularity was abysmal, Toledo’s down into single figures.

The reasons for this are partly conjunctural. Since it was announced that the left-wing mayor of Lima was to undergo a recall referendum, the full force of Peru’s venomous right-wing media has been redirected against the incumbent, Susana Villarán. Indeed, the recall referendum, scheduled for 17 March, has become the number-one topic of discussion and speculation, a battle between the populist right and parties of the centre or centre-left.

Both Toledo and García, realising that this is a chance to recharge their respective political batteries, have pitched in. García and his party APRA are abetting those that want Villarán removed from office, and Toledo, in reaction, is supporting the mayor. Humala, who has been the victim of plenty of media mud-slinging, finds himself – mercifully – out of the headlines. As well as APRA, the ‘yes to recall‘ campaign involves a motley crew of malcontents, supported by the Fujimoristas and those surrounding the previous mayor – widely accused of corruption – Luis Castañeda Lossio. This was the alliance that helped keep García in office up until July 2011.

At the same time, Humala has benefited from Peru’s seemingly strong performance at the International Court (ICJ) in The Hague last December, when it defended its claim against Chile in the oral hearings over sovereignty of some 32,000 square kilometres of the Pacific. Again, the media campaign against Humala and his wife was suspended in an unusual show of national unity. Foreign Minister Rafael Roncagliolo, one of the few left-of-centre people still left in Humala’s cabinet, came out of the hearings strengthened. The ICJ is expected to give its verdict in June or July.

Humala’s popularity also owes something to the fact that the Peruvian economy continues to do well. In 2012, in spite of the global slowdown, Peru chalked up at least 6.5 per cent growth, one of the highest rates in Latin America. Inflation, meanwhile, is one of the region’s lowest. With unprecedented reserves of over US$65 billion in the kitty, the country’s balance of payments seems well protected.

Humala’s own political style also seems to help. Unlike his two loquacious and voluble predecessors, Humala is notoriously tight-lipped. This has its advantages in that he does not easily give hostages to fortune. Also, importantly, he has benefited from starting with low expectations. Few, on the left or right, thought much of Humala when he campaigned for the presidency in 2011; like others before him, he attracted support because voters thought the alternatives would be worse.

As first lady, Nadine has proved an important asset, bright and charismatic in a way that compensates for Humala’s dour demeanour. Her popularity has consistently outstripped that of her husband. Despite legal obstacles and repeated denials, she is still widely seen as a possible candidate to replace Humala when he steps down in 2016. Both Toledo and García, both of whom want to return to office, would love to see Nadine out of the way. They attract none of the public sympathy that the first lady enjoys.

But with three and a half years still to go, Humala is far from disproving the idea that Peruvian presidents start popular but finish with their legitimacy in tatters. As noted above, the factors that now work to his advantage are likely to be temporary. Public opinion can be highly volatile, and the knives are always out in the dirty business of Peruvian politics. Though the economy looks likely to continue growing, both García and Toledo showed that economics is not everything; the economy can do well, but the president can be trashed at the same time.

Humala continues to face a basic contradiction. He has pinned his colours to the maintenance of foreign investment, overwhelmingly benefiting the top few per cent of Peru’s population. However, he is aware that he needs to keep faith with those – mainly the poor – who voted for him. The test will be whether he can spread the benefits of growth to the vast majority of Peruvians. If he can do that and, irrespective of the legal obstacles, Nadine should be a shoo-in in 2016.

Luis Castañeda Lossio. This was the alliance that helped keep García in office up until July 2011.

At the same time, Humala has benefited from Peru’s seemingly strong performance at the International Court (ICJ) in The Hague last December, when it defended its claim against Chile in the oral hearings over sovereignty of some 38,000 square kilometres of the Pacific. Again, the media campaign against Humala and his wife was suspended in an unusual show of national unity. Foreign Minister Rafael Roncagliolo, one of the few left-of-centre people still left in Humala’s cabinet, came out of the hearings strengthened. The ICJ is expected to give its verdict in June or July.

Humala’s popularity also owes something to the fact that the Peruvian economy continues to do well. In 2012, in spite of the global slowdown, Peru chalked up at least 6.5 per cent growth, one of the highest rates in Latin America. Inflation, meanwhile, is one of the region’s lowest. With unprecedented national reserves of over US$65 billion in the kitty, the country’s balance of payments seems well protected.

Humala’s own political style also seems to help. Unlike his two loquacious and voluble predecessors, Humala is notoriously tight-lipped. This has its advantages in that he does not easily give hostages to fortune. Also, importantly, he has benefited from starting with low expectations. Few, on the left or right, thought much of Humala when he campaigned for the presidency in 2011; like others before him, he attracted support because voters thought the alternatives would be worse.

As first lady, Nadine has proved an important asset, bright and charismatic in a way that compensates for Humala’s dour demeanour. Her popularity has consistently outstripped that of her husband. Despite legal obstacles and repeated denials, she is still widely seen as a possible candidate to replace Humala when he steps down in 2016. Toledo and García, both of whom want to return to office, would love to see Nadine out of the way. The two former premiers attract none of the public sympathy that the first lady enjoys.

But with three and a half years still to go, Humala is far from disproving the idea that Peruvian presidents start popular but finish with their legitimacy in tatters. As noted above, the factors that now work to his advantage are likely to be temporary. Public opinion can be highly volatile, and the knives are always out in the dirty business of Peruvian politics. Though the economy looks likely to continue growing, both García and Toledo showed that economics is not everything; the economy can do well, but the president can be trashed at the same time.

Humala continues to face a basic contradiction. He has pinned his colours to the maintenance of foreign investment, overwhelmingly benefiting the top few per cent of Peru’s population. However, he is aware that he needs to keep faith with those – mainly the poor – who voted for him. The test will be whether he can spread the benefits of growth to the vast majority of Peruvians. If he can do that and, irrespective of the legal obstacles, Nadine should be a shoo-in in 2016.

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