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The Politics of Hope: Explaining Presidential Popularity in Fujimori's Peru

By Gamboa, Juan Carlos | Hemisphere, September 22, 2001 | Go to article overview

The Politics of Hope: Explaining Presidential Popularity in Fujimori's Peru


Gamboa, Juan Carlos, Hemisphere


In November 2000, after allegations of electoral fraud and the release of videos showing the head of his intelligence agency bribing opposition politicians, Alberto Fujimori resigned as president of Peru. He tendered his resignation from the safety of a hotel room in Japan, away from the ire of the Peruvian population.

Although many Peruvians today view Fujimori as the personification of corruption and deceit, they were once quick to hail him as the savior of their country. How do we account for this change of heart? Is distaste for corruption and impunity a sufficient explanation? Are current theories of presidential popularity useful in explaining the issue? What lessons can other leaders draw from Fujimori's experience? The following discussion analyzes Fujimori's popularity ratings during his first term in office (1990-1995) in an attempt to answer these questions.

Public Opinion and the President

The study of presidential approval ratings is a relatively new phenomenon in transitional democracies, but it has been pursued in the United States and Europe for at least four decades. During this time, three perspectives have come to dominate the field.

According to a first approach, time is the most important factor in determining an executive's approval ratings. This line of thinking argues that a president's successful showing in public opinion polls is only distantly related to his actual performance. After a brief honeymoon period immediately following his election, a president can expect his ratings to begin a process of slow decline. This downward trend may be interrupted by the successful handling of specific policy crises, but the erosion of presidential support is largely inevitable and inexorable.

A second approach correlates the rise and fall in presidential approval with economic indicators, based on the argument that the economy is the most important factor affecting evaluations of presidential performance. Proponents of this theory might disagree over the role of personal ("pocketbook") or national ("sociotropic") economic considerations in determining citizens' political preferences, but they share the assumption that voters are rational and self-interested actors. From this perspective--which can be summarized in James Carville's well-known phrase "it's the economy, stupid"--presidential ratings rise when economic conditions are good and drop as the economy falters.

A third widely accepted approach to presidential popularity focuses on the media's agenda-setting capabilities. From this viewpoint, news coverage determines the topics society considers important, affects public attitudes toward certain issues and defines the areas in which presidential performance is judged. Consequently, popular presidents should be considered the result of frequent and favorable news coverage, while unpopular ones are the product of the media's constant criticism.

Are any of these perspectives sufficient to explain Fujimori's public opinion performance? Not really, this article contends.

Stability at a Price

The story of Fujimori's first term in office is well-known. He took power in 1990 amidst a profound economic and political crisis, which included violent guerrilla activity countrywide. After his upset victory over novelist Mario Vargas Llosa, the new president took decisive steps to reform an economy that had nearly half of Peruvians living in extreme poverty. Faced with inflation rates of more than 7000%, he implemented a shock program that included the elimination of subsidies, price hikes for gasoline and public services, a liberalized exchange rate, cuts to the federal bureaucracy, more "flexible" labor laws, and the creation of a new agency (SUNAT) to combat tax evasion.

The initial result of these measures was even higher inflation and an erosion of public support. But as Fujimori negotiated with global lenders to "reinsert" Peru into the global economy, enthusiasm for his programs began to increase.

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