The election: what's left?
6 June 2016
In many ways, the Peruvian election has proved a shot in the arm for the Peruvian left. Verónika Mendoza’s ability to rally support for the left-wing Frente Amplio, winning 20 seats in Congress (and becoming the second largest grouping) on the basis of the 18% of the valid vote she won in the first round. If we include the 4% who voted for Gregorio Santos, then that makes the result look better, though it will not alter the congressional tally.
This is therefore by far the best electoral result for the left in the last 30 years, probably since the municipal elections of November 1986 when the Izquierda Unida won nearly 31% of the vote.
The left in Peru has been dogged by a number of problems. The legacy of Sendero Luminoso was such as to make it easy to identify radical political positions with support for terrorism, a gift to the right. The economic convulsions of the late 1980s had the effect of atomising previously collective social groupings (such as the union movement) which had historically provided the organisational backbone of the left. The sectarianism within the left made it hard to aggregate political forces, and the lack of a renovation of leadership made things worse.
Veronika Mendoza and the Frente Amplio managed to overcome some of these difficulties. The discourse of the left has shifted away from the rather sterile positions of the past, picking up on new matters of concern (like the environment) to a new generation of voters. The Frente Amplio was conceived of less as a party (in the old sense) but rather a space in which people from various ideological persuasions could play a role. Verónika herself was not associated with the politics of old. The decision to choose the candidate through an open primary was significant in increasing a sense of openness and participation.
But the left should not get carried away. Twenty members of Congress will provide a platform, but it will be ineffectual in defining policy going forward, with the pro-Fujimori Fuerza Popular (FP) having no fewer than 73 seats in a 130-seat Congress. On most issues, there will be little in common either with the 18-seat block of Kuczynski’s Peru Por el Kambio (PPK). The left will have to learn how to use its voice in Congress to maximum effect, faced as it will be by such a massive right-wing majority.
But it has the opportunity to become the voice of opposition the pro-business orientation of both FP and PPK. Its proven role in supporting indigenous and other communities against the inroads of investors from extractive industries will help it maintain a key link with grass-roots opinion. It will also be able to project the voices of others who find themselves the victims of extractive-led growth, such as the (probably increasing numbers) of the poor and the unemployed.
The strength of the left in the south of the country, where FA polled much better than it did nationally, provides a base on which to build organisation with a view to future contests. Mendoza, who will not have a seat in the next Congress, will undoubtedly seek to take an active part in consolidating that electoral support. The next elections will be the nationwide contest for regional and municipal governments in November 2018.