Shannon K. O'Neil

Latin America's Moment

O'Neil analyzes developments in Latin America and U.S. relations in the region.

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Reads of the Week: Analyzing Humala’s Victory in Peru

by Shannon K. O'Neil
October 21, 2011

Source: Corporación Latinobarómetro, Informe Anual 2010 (Santiago de Chile, December 2010)

Steven Levitsky’s recent article in the Journal of Democracy explains why Humala won the Peruvian elections last summer. He points to a mix of campaign particulars  — most importantly the divisions within the center-right – Humala’s effective shift from the left to the center, and most fundamentally, state weakness (which tends to push voters toward anti-establishment candidates). The Peruvian state has always been weak – as Hillel Soifer’s work has shown.

This weakness means Humala faces a huge challenge — and not just from the Lima-based political and economic establishment that voted against him. As the graph above shows, Peruvians have little faith in their government, their parties, and their political institutions in general. This hints at Humala’s bigger problem. He has few tools – especially outside of  the country’s larger urban centers – to do much to drastically improve Peruvians’ standard of living. Even if economic growth continues and can pay for it, delivering social programs, better schools, and safer streets  will require building a stronger state (almost from scratch) – quite a tall order.

Still, Humala is off to a decent start – he appointed a “market-friendly” cabinet that pleased even Alan Garcia,  then raised the minimum wage without upsetting the economic elite too much, and most recently passed a prior consultation law many years in the making. Whether he can build and strengthen the Peruvian state will define his presidency. If he can’t, it will lead to Levitsky’s most likely scenario – a mediocre government.

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