Leading article: The lesser of two evils

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The Independent Online

The rough old trade of politics can sometimes be extraordinarily forgiving. In 1990, Alan Garcia was swept from office in Peru and forced into exile, after a disastrous five-year presidential term that had ended in economic collapse, hyperinflation and a deadly guerrilla insurgency. On Sunday, he was once again elected president - a remarkable comeback that in the turbulent climate of Latin American politics counts as a victory for continuity and moderation.

Mr Garcia, whose campaigning skills, as opposed to his competence in government, have never been in doubt, outmanoeuvred his opponent, Ollanta Humala, who had been loudly supported by Venezuela's firebrand leader, Hugo Chavez. Mr Garcia played the card of national sovereignty, portraying his opponent as the agent of a foreign power, and a pawn in the Venezuelan's efforts to expand his influence across the region. The outcome will be highly welcome in Washington, as proof that the populist and virulently anti-American Mr Chavez is not a role model for all.

But Peru remains a deeply troubled country, despite vastly improved economic performance under the outgoing president, Alejandro Toledo. During the campaign, Mr Garcia stressed that trade and investment were the key to prosperity, and rejected the economic nationalism espoused by Mr Chavez and his protégé Evo Morales in Bolivia. But maintaining this course in government will not be so easy.

Many of Latin America's political fault lines run through Peru. The country has a history of corruption and bad governance, of military meddling and coups, and of deep divisions between the ruling elite and the indigenous and mixed-race populations. Mr Garcia won a large majority of the votes in the capital, Lima, and in the more prosperous northern coastal region. But Mr Humala swept the south and the mountain and jungle regions of the interior, with his message of hostility to US-led free trade agreements and to Washington's efforts to eradicate coca leaf cultivation by poor farmers, and his calls for nationalisation of Peru's oil and gas resources.

For many voters, moreover, the choice was between the lesser of two evils - between a former leader who they hoped has now learnt the folly of his previous ways, and the populist Mr Humala, an unknown and unsettling quantity to many, even though his party is the largest in the Peruvian parliament. In short, although Mr Garcia's victory looks fairly convincing on paper, in reality it is anything but. For the moment, his country seems to have escaped the "Chavez option". But if the new president does not perform a great deal better this time than he did from 1985 to 1990, further political instability in Peru seems all but certain.

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