What is happening around the pandemic, with a virtual nocturnal curfew and school closure as from midweek, is so totally unprecedented that it has far more to do with future shock than the trips down memory lane which this column is supposed to evoke – comparisons between past and present do not lend themselves here. So barred from travelling in time, this column will travel in space to look elsewhere in the South American region, where three sister republics voted last Sunday.
Here the limelight has rightly fallen on Ecuador where the conservative president-elect Guillermo Lasso almost trebled his vote in the run-off from his first-round total in a major upset but the purposes of this column are better served by looking at Peru where the extreme fragmentation of the vote not only brings back memories from recent Argentine electoral history (the 2003 election) but might well also be the shape of things to come for the midterm elections in October (or whenever they end up being held, if at all). The logic here is that if the political response of Argentina and Peru to extreme socio-economic disintegration in 2001-2002 and 2020-2021 respectively was extreme electoral disintegration, why should that pattern not be repeated here now amid the pandemic panic after a year of double-digit (OK, almost, 9.9 percent) economic shrinkage? Everybody has this grieta chasm so much on the brain that they automatically project the extreme polarisation of the last election (when the current and previous president pooled 88.5 percent of the total votes between them) into the next round of voting but today we inhabit a somewhat different universe from the Argentina of the spring of 2019.
Let us now make a closer comparison between last Sunday’s Peruvian election and 2003 here. To put the former vote into its context, as they are having a really awful time up there in Peru. The higher they come, the harder they fall, it is said, and Peru has been growing so impressively over the last decade (with an annual average growth rate of almost five percent) that they are taking a real tumble now, especially with so much of their economy in the vulnerable informal sector – their 2020 contraction of minus 11.2 percent is even worse than our double-digit (sorry, 9.9 percent) shrinkage – the worst in the region except Venezuela (which always takes some beating) and surely one of the worst in the world (only Spain with minus 11.6 percent springs to mind without combing Google). On the pandemic front their Covid-19 death toll is only a couple of thousand behind ours with just three-quarters of our population.
A battered Peruvian electorate thus went to the polls last Sunday to deliver the following confusing verdict – with 99.6 percent of the votes counted last Tuesday, the surprise frontrunner was leftist teachers union leader Pedro Castillo with 19.1 percent (teacher unions would seem to be walking tall these days from the way they have brought education here to a halt), right-wing populist Keiko Fujimori with 13.3 percent, conservative businessman Rafael López Aliaga with 11.68 percent, Hernando de Soto (a veteran liberal economist now aged almost 80, who over three decades ago came up with the idea of transforming shantytowns from blots on the landscape to real-estate goldmines by handing out property deeds) with 11.58 percent, leftist ex-deputy Yonhy Lescano with 9.11 percent and leftist populist Verónika Mendoza (the candidate closest to the heart of the Frente de Todos government here) with 8.8 percent – even this enormous list omits almost a quarter of the vote. To save some space, the party labels were skipped because they do not mean a thing (Perú Libre, Fuerza Popular, Renovación Popular, Avanza País and Acción Popular are the first five for anybody who wants to know). Castillo and Fujimori now presumably go to a June run-off but that need not concern us here.
As it happens, the first round in Ecuador last February 7 was not much less fragmented with one runaway winner (and run-off loser last Sunday) – Andrés Arauz, the youthful new heir of 2007-2017 president Rafael Correa with 32.7 percent of the vote – and three candidates with between 15 and 20 percent of the votes with Lasso finishing at the top of that pack by just 32,000 votes. It is interesting to compare the percentages of the conservative run-off victory in Ecuador last Sunday with those of the 2015 centre-right runoff win here – Lasso polled 52.36 percent as against 47.64 percent for Arauz while Mauricio Macri was elected with 51.34 percent of the vote as against Daniel Scioli’s 48.66 percent.
If we now put the Argentine electoral clock back not to 2015 but to 2003 and compare it to today’s Peru, the spread is broadly similar. The late Carlos Menem won that election with 24.45 percent of the vote but not the presidency, which went to the now also deceased Néstor Kirchner with 22.25 percent, while no less than three other candidates were within 10 percent of the leader – liberal economist Ricardo López Murphy with 16.37 percent, Peronist ex-president Adolfo Rodríguez Saá with 14.11 percent and the eternal Elisa Carrió (then ARI) with 14.05 percent. The main difference with Peru is that this quintet only left about eight percent of the electorate out, not a quarter. The context of that election was, of course, the post-convertibility meltdown resulting in negative growth of minus 11 percent for the year 2002 – even worse than our double-digit (erratum 9.9 percent, why do I keep saying that?) contraction last year. So why not expect a recurrence of our 2003 patterns in the next two elections?
Many people might wonder where all the extra candidates are going to come from with Cristina-Macri reductionism so fashionable. Still early days to answer that question but Messrs Roberto Lavagna and Florencio Randazzo have been talking, the ultra-liberals led by José Luis Espert disillusioned with Macri’s gradualism could answer a hunger for real change and then there is always the far left in times of economic discontent. But recalling how José Octavio Bordón only broke surface in the last six weeks of the 1995 campaign to win five million votes, the real star of the upcoming midterms may not even yet be on the horizon. No reason for uncertainty not to be the guiding principle of the times in which we live.