Lessons from Peru’s revolt against all political parties

What if they held an election and nobody won?

It sounds like a joke, but Peruvians woke up to it splashed across their headlines this week. In a country where voting is compulsory by law, people dissatisfied with their options risk a fine if they stay home. So instead they turned out this Sunday … and cast more than twice as many spoiled and blank ballots as they did ballots for the most popular party.

While Peruvians were certain they didn’t like the parties in their last Congress, the country did not coalesce around an alternative. The result is that as many as 10 parties will have seats in Congress even though no party received more than 10 percent of the total vote once blank and null ballots are included. More than a quarter of voters split their votes across a dozen parties so small that they received fewer than the 5 percent of votes necessary to get a seat in the next Congress. According to Monday morning vote tallies, 22.5 percent had cast spoiled or blank ballots.

Long story short, “none of the above” won by a landslide.

The upshot is a Congress divided among numerous small parties that is likely to see significant infighting as the country moves toward the 2021 presidential election. It is good news that several corrupt parties, including Fuerza Popular, saw their vote totals collapse. But in their place are new parties with little of a track record, and some that used to be seen as fringe, including a party based on a messianic cult. Voter confidence in Congress and the political system is unlikely to improve.

The election outcome in Peru sounds like the reductio ad absurdum of anti-politics, and in some ways it is. As commentators never tire of pointing out, this is all happening in one of Latin America’s best-performing and most stable economies, amid fast-falling poverty levels and a quickly expanding middle class. The chasm between Peru’s relative economic success and the incandescent anger of its voters looks like one of the hemisphere’s lasting paradoxes.

In fact, that view has it backward. For decades, political scientists have realized economic development can be hugely politically destabilizing. Edge-of-subsistence peasants are, as a rule, too engrossed with simple survival to worry very much about what politicians get up to. As they take their first tentative steps into the middle class, though, practices that used to be “just the way things are” come to be seen as galling instances of corruption.

This seems to be the thrust of the Peruvian story. It’s not that the politicians suddenly got more corrupt than they had been. It’s that the people suddenly got more aware of how the sausage is made, and less willing to tolerate it.

At the center of this story is the sprawling Odebrecht Scandal. The Brazilian engineering company ran a staggeringly large system of kickback schemes, corrupting politicians all over Latin America and beyond. Perversely, the amount of political damage Odebrecht has done is directly proportional to a country’s level of democratic institutionality. In countries such as Brazil and Peru that have relatively strong and independent institutions and where Odebrecht’s misdeeds have actually been investigated and punished, the damage to people’s faith in their institutions has been catastrophic. In countries such as Mexico, where corruption is rarely punished, and Venezuela, where prosecutors are fully under the thumb of the regime, nobody’s really gotten in trouble for taking Odebrecht’s bribes.

Almost two years ago, President Pedro Pablo Kuczynskiresigned as the Congress was on the verge of impeaching him. The final straw came when a video surfaced showing the president’s allies trying to bribe members of Congress to vote against his impeachment. His vice president, Martín Vizcarra, took over.

The Congress that was getting ready to impeach Kuczynski was led by Fuerza Popular, the party of Keiko Fujimori, daughter of Peru’s imprisoned former dictator Alberto Fujimori. Yet Fujimori herself was later investigated for taking kickbacks from Odebrecht, a poisonous dynamic that understandably led Peruvians to conclude all the politicians are the same.

Fujimori’s party moved shamelessly to block the new president’s anti-corruption measures. Facing an impasse, in September, President Vizcarra dissolved Congress and called for new elections, something he has the authority to do under Peru’s constitution. Over 80 percent of the public supported the president’s move to toss out Congress and hold new elections. However, when it came time to vote for a new Congress, Peruvians had no clear alternatives that they supported.

This leaves Vizcarra in a bizarre position: He is the only politician with any real popular support in Peru, but he doesn’t have a party of his own and he has been adamant that he will step down next year, threatening a political vacuum in the country. Peru has the type of public anger and leadership void that has often allowed an anti-system populist or authoritarian leader to step up and promise something better. But it just isn’t happening this time.

Peru’s disillusionment with its own political system is a frightening lesson in what can happen when politicians fail to work to improve their countries and the public loses faith in the entire democratic process. For those watching in the United States, it’s a lesson that impeaching a president for corruption and obstruction of justice, even when merited, doesn’t solve a country’s political problems without leadership to build a better path forward. Anger is not a strategy.

Francisco Toro is chief content officer of the Group of Fifty and a contributing columnist for Global Opinions. James Bosworth is the author of the Latin America Risk Report newsletter.

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