Peru election may hinge on protest vote

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Among the newspapers festooned on a rickety kiosk in Arequipa’s central square is a copy of the trade deal Peru struck with Washington in December. Above it, in crude letters, a handmade cardboard sign declares: “Know everything that the government is hiding from the country about the trade agreement signed with the United States.”

It is the sort of sales pitch that goes down well in Peru’s second-biggest city. Residents of Arequipa, which is 2,380m above sea level and about 1,000km south of Lima, regard themselves as living in their own mini-republic. Attitudes towards the capital and central government run the gamut from deep mistrust to loathing.

It is no surprise then that in the lead-up to the general election on April 9, Arequipa has become the political stronghold for Ollanta Humala, a former officer whose threats to nationalise “strategic industries” have alarmed foreign investors and whose pledge to industrialise production of coca, the raw material for cocaine, is worrying Washington.

Lima’s stock market declined this week as Mr Humala’s campaign appeared to have overcome accusations of past human rights abuses, internal squabbling and a concerted campaign by the political establishment.

National polls show Mr Humala running neck and neck with Lourdes Flores Nano, a pro-free market conservative, but in Arequipa Mr Humala is firmly in first place. “Support for Humala here represents a sense of abandonment,” says Enrique Mendoza, proprietor of Arequipa al Dia, the city’s leading newspaper. “His manifesto is unimportant. It’s a protest vote, a sentimental thing rather than an intellectual thing. Resentment is strong here, 10 times stronger than ideology.”

Mr Mendoza’s analysis is echoed among some of the city’s 900,000 residents enjoying in the central square a recent spectacular sunset. “Lima barely knows we exist until we start protesting,” says Aljandro Diez, who runs a small textiles business. “With Humala, we have a chance to change the country and to improve things in the south.”

The city’s culture of social protest is explained in part by its shifting demographics. Arequipa was traditionally known as “the white city”, both because of its fine colonial-era Spanish buildings built of sillar, a pearly white volcanic rock, and the high proportion of light-skinned descendants of Spanish conquistadores who made the city their home. But in the past 40 years, immigrants from poor southern highland regions such as Puno, the Aymara indigenous city on the shores of Lake Titicaca, have arrived in droves seeking work.

“Arequipa has become a colony of Puno, with the cultural traditions of Puno,” says Julio Cotler, a political analyst from Lima.

Social protest is an important part of that culture, and barely a day goes by without some sort of unrest. In 2002 two people were killed and hundreds injured in demonstrations against the privatisation of two electricity companies. A transport strike against obligatory vehicle insurance brought the city to a standstill for a week last year and the Colca canyon, an important tourist attraction, was inaccessible for 10 days because of roadblocks. In recent months farmers have congregated in Arequipa to protest against the US trade deal.

Mr Humala’s support in Arequipa also represents a wider resentment evident across Peru towards the politicos de siempre (permanent politicians), the country’s stale political establishment. He likes to call himself the “anti-system” candidate, in a self-conscious echo of Alberto Fujimori, Peru’s president between 1990 and 2000 who cast himself as an “outsider” even when he was seeking re-election.

Unusually for Peru, the country is going to the polls at a time of economic boom. Gross domestic product grew by 6.7 per cent last year, compared with 4.81 per cent in 2004. The economy has expanded for 54 consecutive months, according to the National Statistics and Information Institute.

But Peru has a very young population – the median age is about 25 – and its workforce is growing by about 3 per cent a year. Even average GDP growth of 4.5 per cent over the past 15 years – though exceptional in terms of Peru’s history – has not been fast enough to make a serious dent in the labour market. Underemployment remains a widespread problem throughout Peru.

“Poverty levels remain about the same, quality of life hasn’t improved and the labour market is static,” says Fritz Du Bois, of the Peruvian Economic Institute, a free-market think-tank in Lima. “At the same time we have a whole generation of Peruvians accustomed to hearing how well we’re doing. This brings considerable frustration and irritation.”

Some analysts also point to Mr Humala’s psychological appeal. “There is a self-esteem problem at the heart of the Peruvian psyche,” says Mr Cotler. “In the past two decades we have had the highest inflation in our history, the most vicious terrorism in South America, we were the world’s biggest producer of cocaine and we had the corruption of the Fujimori years. Incan nationalism is a refuge from that recent history.”

For the moment, many opponents of Mr Humala are seeking solace in polls that show Ms Flores would easily defeat him in a second-round run-off. But according to the most recent polls, Mr Humala is the first-choice candidate outside the capital. As Mr Mendoza notes: “Yes, they [Lima] are 27 per cent of the population but they should never forget that we are 73 per cent”.

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