Feature Story

Peru heading into the runoff election


Dr. Daniel Zovatto, Regional Director for Latin America and the Caribbean, International IDEA

On 10 April, for the first time in modern history, Peru held its fourth consecutive democratic election.

This process - which in its pre-election phase was marked by a tense climate full of surprises, including the exclusion (by the electoral courts) of two of the main presidential candidates: César Acuna and Julio Guzmán (Guzmán was in second place in the polls) – took place without incident, with a high level of participation, nearly 82 per cent.

I wish to highlight the following five points regarding the first round.

  1. Fujimorismo, led by Keiko Fujimori (the daughter of the autocrat Alberto Fujimori) was the undisputed winner of this first round. She obtained the absolute majority in Congress (70 to 72 members of a total of 130) and almost 40 per cent of the votes in the presidential election. In second place (and quite far behind) was Pedro Pablo Kuczynski, who with 21 per cent of the votes for president won approximately 20 seats in Congress. In third place, just 2 points behind Kuczynski, was the candidate of the left (which was the big surprise in this election), Verónika Mendoza, with just under 19 per cent of the presidential votes and approximately 20 members of Congress.
  2. The incumbent party lost (President Humala’s lost its registration and did not win a single seat in the legislature), which has been an established trend in Peru since 2001. Therefore, a second round of elections must be held to determine the presidency, since no candidate won over 50 per cent of the votes. It is possible that the results will flip on the second round; the winner of the first round could be defeated in the second.
  3. This vote reaffirms the predominance of the center-right (even though Kuczynski, in a recent interview, said that he was not on the right) and of the Fujimorista populist right, which, together, account for 61 per cent of the presidential vote and about 90 of the 130 legislators elected to the unicameral Congress.
  4. Also significant is the large percentage of null and blank ballots, which combined accounted for approximately 17.6 per cent of the vote. Such votes could play an important role in the second round.
  5. Finally, special mention should be made of the poor results obtained by the two former presidents who attempted to return to the presidency via alternate re-election. Alejandro Toledo, won a paltry 1.30 per cent (which led his party to lose its registration) and Alan García, who with a scant 5.8 per cent came in fifth place and narrowly saved his party’s registration.

The second round

Peru will return to the polls on 5 June in what will be a hard-fought runoff election. Since the return to democracy, the country has held nine presidential elections from 1980 to 2016. In seven of them (all but 1980 and 1995) it was necessary to go to a second round (though in 1985 it didn’t happen because the candidate Barrantes, who came in second-place, declined to participate in the runoff against García).

The very large margin (almost 20 points) with which Keiko beat Kuczynski in the first round could lead to the mistake of assuming that the runoff is a foregone conclusion. This is not the case. Obviously, making up for such a large margin is no mean feat, but it is not impossible given the anti-Fujimori sentiment that persists in Peru.

The comparative experience of Latin America shows that of the 44 runoff elections that took place from 1978 to 2015, the second place finisher in the first round ended up winning in the second round 11 times. The two most recent cases are Juan Manuel Santos in Colombia (2014) and Mauricio Macri in Argentina (2015). Peru is among the countries where this has happened. Two of the 11 runoff elections in which the second place finisher in the first round ended up winning in the second round have occurred in Peru: in 1990 (when Fujimori defeated Vargas Llosa in the second round) and in 2006 (when García beat Humala in the second round).

For that to happen, Kuczynski should try to accomplish three objectives: (1) succeed in getting public opinion to perceive that despite the large margin in the first round, Keiko is not assured a victory in the runoff and that there are real possibilities of beating her in the second round; (2) draw on the strong anti-Fujimori spirit to put together (with the largest number of political forces) a “negative coalition” against fujimorismo; and (3) generate enough enthusiasm to ensure that the level of electoral participation does not drop off in the second round, and to increase it as much as possible, preventing the anti-Fujimori vote (especially the left vote) from becoming null votes, blank votes, or abstention.

The second point is the key factor for Kuczynski to achieve a victory in the runoff. One should bear in mind that the objective of any second-round vote is to not lose the hardcore vote obtained in the first round, to reduce to the greatest possible degree the anti-vote, and to win the largest number of new voters.

The strategy Kuczynski needs to put into play to attain this objective is not simple. First, he must convince the electorate that he is the best candidate, and at the same time (and especially for those who didn’t vote in the first round) that he represents the lesser evil (even if they have to vote for him reluctantly). He must also try to convince the citizenry that the return of fujimorismo to the Executive – having secured (as a result of the first round) control of the Congress – represents a serious danger to democracy. Yet Kuczynski must use this argument with great prudence – so as to not wound Keiko too much – since if he wins the presidency he will need the support of fujimorismo in Congress to govern and to move his agenda forward.

For her part, Keiko’s strategy to avoid losing in the second round includes reducing the anti-Keiko vote and moving towards the center. To do so she must try to convince citizens that she is different from her father and that she will not use the enormous power she could come to have – simultaneous control of the Congress and the Executive – to install an authoritarian government. In other words, Keiko must resolve the dilemma between democracy and authoritarianism in her favour.

My opinion: the runoff vote in Peru bears the semblance of a dispute between two rightist models: a more populist one led by Keiko, and other more liberal one headed up by Kuczynski. Accordingly, the economic model is not in question; the central dispute will revolve mainly around the axis of fujimorismo/antifujimorismo, while certain issues such as economic recovery and citizen security will also figure prominently.

While in the first round balloting Keiko finished with a 20-point lead over Kuczynski, the start of the campaign for the runoff (according to most of the polls) finds them tied. This indicates that while Kuczynski doubled his share of the intended votes, Keiko has not seen her totals grow, but has retained her share of firm supporters. Yet to win the presidency both candidates must win over new votes, especially the large part of the electorate who in the first round threw their support behind Verónika Mendoza. However, in a country with weak party institutions and a highly volatile vote, it will not be easy for the leaders of the political forces who did not make it to the second round to endorse votes over to Kuczynski or Keiko. In view of all the foregoing considerations, with 40 days remaining until the runoff election, the competition for the presidency is still an open race and very much disputed, and the outcome more uncertain than ever.

About the Author

Director for Latin America and the Caribbean
Daniel Zovatto

Daniel Zovatto is Regional Director for Latin America and the Caribbean at the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance (International IDEA).