Peru: President Alejandro Toledo Hurt by Regional Elections

Article excerpt

In a setback for Peruvian President Alejandro Toledo, voters in regional elections backed opposition candidates as they elected 50 presidents and vice presidents of the new regional governments and 229 members of regional councils. More than 1,800 mayors were also elected.

The elections displaced Toledo's Peru Posible (PP) from its leadership position among political groups in Peru. In the 18 months since he won the presidential elections for a five- year term, Toledo has seen his approval rating plummet from a high of 59% at the time of his election to 14% last month, and protest marches have become a daily event in Lima and several other cities. Critics accuse Toledo of failing to make good on campaign promises to create jobs.

Toledo's popularity has recovered somewhat since he finally admitted last month to being the father of a 14-year- old girl. Recent opinion polls show he now has an approval rating of about 25%.

Decentralization of Peru

The primary purpose of the elections was to choose the leadership for the new decentralized structure. The 24 former departments and the province of Callao have become 25 regions with much more local authority.

Peru has long been a highly centralized country, with Lima holding one-third of the country's 25 million people and controlling more than half the GDP. Peru's second-largest city, Arequipa, has barely 1 million people and 6% of the GDP.

Toledo had campaigned for the creation of regional governments to provide more power to people in the country's poor and largely rural departments. But critics see regionalization as a recipe for another Argentina, where independent provinces ran up huge debts that contributed to the country's financial collapse. Toledo's predecessor President Alberto Fujimori (1990-2000) ended an earlier attempt at regionalization.

"For the first time in our history, we are selecting regional authorities...and taking a fundamental step forward in state reform," Toledo told reporters on election day.

While decentralization aims to end regional protests, such as June's violent demonstrations in Arequipa that foiled the Toledo administration's privatization program (see NotiSur, 2002-06-21), the plan could backfire if the regional presidents organize against Toledo. The president now faces negotiating the new administrative structure with regional presidents from opposition parties.

The central government has promised the regional governments 17% of the budget and the right to raise their own taxes and auction state assets if they want more money. They will also have a range of powers that now rest with the central government.

Results deal blow to Toledo

In an election in which voting was mandatory, 15 million Peruvians cast their ballots in what was widely seen as a referendum on the president. Toledo's PP captured only one regional presidency. Seven regions will be governed by Independents and two by Union por el Peru (UPP), while Accion Popular (AP), Somos Peru, the Frente Independiente Moralizador (FIM), and Movimiento Nueva Izquierda (MNI) will each govern one.

Accion Popular, one of Peru's traditional parties, won only one regional presidency despite having a national structure and the prestige of its highly respected leader and former interim President Valentin Paniagua (2000-2001).

The big winner was former President Alan Garcia (1985- 1990). Garcia ended his term plagued by hyperinflation and increasing guerrilla terrorism. His Alianza Popular Revolucionaria Americana (APRA) proved to be the only party with nationwide organization and appeal, winning 11 of the 25 regional presidencies.

"[Peru Posible] is definitely weakened," said political analyst Ernesto Velit. "If the government gets the message that people want power shared with other parties, it will be easier to govern. If it turns its back, there will be problems. …