Acuña up, García down

14 November 2015

This was the week when César Acuña displaced Alan García as number three in a number of opinion polls. Whether or not he will be able to hold on to this or, indeed, further improve his position in the ranking of potential presidential candidates in next year’s elections, is hard to know. But the latest tally of voter intentions is certainly bad news for García, the twice former president who only recently inaugurated his election campaign.

According to Datum’s November poll, Keiko Fujimori still leads the pack with 35%, followed by Pedro Pablo Kuczynski on 19% and Acuña on 9%. García, meanwhile has slipped to 7%. Acuña’s support had risen from 4% in the previous Datum poll in October. Pulso Perú, another pollster, also puts Acuña on 9%.

García’s much trumpeted campaign curtain raiser does not appear to have had the desired effect. The various alleged corruption scandals that took place during his second government (2006-11) appear to continue besmirching his public profile. Of these, the most toxic is still the so-called ‘narcoindulto’ scandal whereby García signed hundreds of pardons for those imprisoned for drug trafficking offences. In a television interview on 8 November, the former president tried to brush this aside. But it seems that the ‘narcoindulto’ affair has stuck firmly in the public mind.

And who is Acuña? Of the various front-runners – Keiko, PPK, García, Alejandro Toledo – he is probably the least well-known face, though he has been a very active political figure over the last 15 years, particularly in APRA’s former heartland in La Libertad. Acuña has built up his own party, the Alianza para el Progreso (APP), taking its name from the aid programme for Latin America designed by US President John F Kennedy.

Beyond La Libertad, the party has managed to build up a nationwide clientele chiefly through the network of university campuses that Acuña has established across the country, the Universidad César Vallejo, amongst other ventures in the field of higher education. Private universities generally have grown like mushrooms in Peru over the recent past.

Acuña made his first big political breakthrough in the former Aprista bastion of Trujillo when he became a congressman in 2000. In 2007, he became mayor of Trujillo, a position he held until 2014. At the beginning of 2015 he took up the post of regional president in La Libertad. He has two close relatives in the present Congress, and as such wields considerable political influence, having gained stature and name recognition. His ownership of the Universidad César Vallejo provides him with money and an institutional basis from which to project himself.

Perhaps most important, Acuña is someone whose career – the son of poor peasants from Cajamarca – is emblematic of social mobility and the ‘rags-to-riches’ trajectory of the successful self-made man. In this, as with his university status, he has acquired a certain resemblance to Alberto Fujimori, who was rector of the Universidad Agraria before launching himself (hugely successfully) into politics in 1990. Like Fujimori, Acuña can plausibly aim to be a ‘presidente como tú’ (a president like you). Though by no means an outsider like Fujimori, he is not seen as part of the national political elite.

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