Portuguese and Peruvian picks
Polls in Portugal and Peru suggest that there is no room for professional controversialists ‚ê" from pet hates to pontificating politicians, postulates Gamal Nkrumah
A most bizarre peculiarity of both the Peruvian and the Portuguese polls this week was the double game of the winners, hunting with the hounds of big business while running with the hares, the penniless masses. The Portuguese might not be dirt poor, like the bulk of the Peruvian peasants and slum-dwellers, but the grim spectre of pauperism looms large over Portugal, situated on the periphery of Europe and facing bankruptcy and the implementation of a $115 billion bail-out programme. The Portuguese economy is forecast to contract by two per cent this year and the next.
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Ageing Europe, like Portugal, moves to the right while youthful and upbeat South America, like Peru, continues its onward leftist march
An air of dignified resignation prevails among Socialists in Portugal following their mortifying defeat at the hands of the Social Democrats. It is hard to overstate the political and social disaster wrapped up in the rout of the Portuguese Socialists.
Portugal ‚"will not be a burden to its creditor‚êç, pledged Pedro Passos Coelho, the youthful winner of Sunday's Portuguese parliamentary poll. The Portuguese electorate is hoping that this week's parliamentary poll will provide an opportunity to rebuild the country's ailing economy. Coelho proudly declared that he won a victory for Portugal's ‚"young people‚êç ‚ê" a pertinent reminder that the Arab uprising formula could easily transit to Europe across the Mediterranean.
However, Coelho has no qualms about conceding publicly that Portugal is forced to go down a gear instead of up one. ‚"We face a very difficult period over the next two to three years,‚êç Coelho confessed after casting his vote. Unemployment is inching close to 13 per cent and Portugal is forecast to be the only European country to suffer recession next year. Coelho frankly has a most unenviable task. ‚"Life will be difficult,‚êç Coelho complained. ‚"But Portugal will return to economic growth and prosperity in two or three years,‚êç Coelho quickly added. Wishful thinking, I suspect.
South America is not Europe. And, Peru isn't Portugal. South America is a continent poised for brighter economic prospects with leftists at the helm. However, the millions of South America living in abject poverty expect a greater calorie intake, better healthcare provision, healthier education systems, as well as double digit economic growth rates.
Europe, on the other hand, is in the midst of a continental murk. Europeans are in no mood to suffer incompetent politicians. If the elected leaders of Europe do not clean up their act, then they'll be forced to do so, Arab uprising and Tahrir Square style.
Another leftist leader in South America is on the road and hitting the headlines. The Left in South America has momentous choices to make about the future course of the continent. But the latent violence in South American countries such as Peru should remind the world that there is too much dry tinder out there in countries like Columbia, Mexico and Peru for any aspiring politician to be careless with matches.
In Peru, Ollanta Humala, the leftist ex-soldier captured the presidency this week at the very moment his socialist comrades were stepping down in Portugal.
Humala is proud of the movement he helped inspire but is determined not to mimic his mentor Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez. The effect was to torpedo Humala's claim to be on the side of the poor.
Peru's newfound leftist leader has taken the fight to the Fujimoris, relics of the right-wing populist past. Indeed, Humala's main rival was none other than right-wing Keiko Fujimori, daughter of jailed former president Alberto Fujimori.
The difficulties of writing about daughters of dubious or even questionable historical figures accrue when the latter happen to be popular. Keiko Fujimori does not campaign to clear the name of her infamous father, a strongman who ruled Peru with an iron fist, and left the country in disgrace only to return much humbled and forlorn, but not quite forgotten by either friends or foes.
The best parts of the Peruvian and Portuguese polls, the most exciting aspects of the elections, are associated with the problems of ethics.
Lima and Lisbon, the Peruvian and Portuguese capitals respectively, are two cities where the remains of a glorious past are visible everywhere. One faces the Pacific, and the other the Atlantic Ocean.
Lima and Lisbon, Peru and Portugal, are no longer the places of lost glories, but their respective political prospects are pin-pointers to two continents at the crossroads. Unfortunately, politicians in both Peru and Portugal are lacking in financial punch, according to the economic gurus of the Bretton Wood institutions ‚ê" the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund.
Weak economies make the winners of this week's Peruvian and Portuguese elections vulnerable. Humala won by a narrow margin. He scooped 51 per cent of the vote, while Ms Fujimori scraped 49 per cent.
On the face of it, Peru and Portugal have nothing in common. True, both countries have suffered from a prolonged and pervasive mood of national melancholy, but now their new leaders will have to raise their stakes if they are to stay in power.
Portugal is a Western democracy and Peru is catching up fast with what has become a fully-fledged multi-party democracy. Yet, there are critical differences between the two countries that can be explained by the very different natures and historical realities of the two continents. In Peru the underdog is the indigenous people, the proud inheritors of the Inca civilisation. In Portugal, on the other hand, the unfortunate underling is the immigrant characteristically from North Africa or from one of the far-flung former Portuguese colonies.
Caretaker Portuguese Prime Minister Jose Socrates lost the 5 June snap ballot precisely because of his handling of the faltering economy. Socrates was coy about implementing deep spending cuts. His socialism cost him his job. In the aftermath of the Social Democrats' victory in Portugal a mere five Socialist-led governments barely survive in the 27-nation European Union. This is the very antithesis of what is happening in South America.
Social Democrats versus the Socialists is an issue that would not particularly interest the electorate in the nascent democracies of South America. They are more interested in people's power, social justice and the economic emancipation of the impoverished masses. Peru with tremendous mineral and agricultural resources has a long way to go before it approaches Portuguese living standards. Peru is resource-rich, but its people are poor.
Portugal is a different kettle of fish altogether, where consensus descended into acrimonious spat and the old-fashioned Socialists were unceremoniously unseated because they were unabashed about seeking bail-out packages. Portugal has certainly fallen from grace, and the days of the Portuguese Empire that ruled the roost in Africa, the Americas and Asia are long gone.
If the economic backdrop were more forgiving for Portugal and if the Socialists had articulated a courageous communist policy agenda, the result might have mattered less. Their fear of alienating Portugal's prosperous middle class by Third World criterion and beggared by First World standards, is indicative of a lack of conviction.
Portugal is one of the few European nations where democratic socialism and even communism thrive. Yet, the problem with Portugal is that the vast majority of the Portuguese people do not seriously believe that the nationalisation of their economy makes any sense.
As the Socialists survey the wreckage of this week's humiliating climb-down they can only wonder what went wrong. Socrates' Socialists have only themselves to blame for this fiasco. Their defeat was even worse than anticipated, exposing the Socialists as ineffectual, fractured and indecisive.
The Portuguese electorate is now pinning its hopes on Portugal's prime minister in waiting to measure up to their expectations and introduce more vigorous economic liberalisation policies in line with the IMF and World Bank dictates. Yet, the Portuguese economy is small by European standards, equivalent in size to one of neighbouring Spain's 17 autonomous regions, such as Catalonia. Portugal is too tethered to capitalism to take off.
The question should be: Can the Social Democrats' fiscal policy plan really work? Asking the question is no more than an academic exercise. The Social Democrats are no more capitalistic than the Socialists. The Socialists under Socrates, who resigned his post as party leader in the aftermath of the elections, are as confused as ever. The Social Democrats were ahead in the polls because the Socialists bitterly disappointed the Portuguese people. They are out of tune with the electorate.
Unattractive as the prospect of choosing between Socialists and Social Democrats is, the Portuguese electorate had their say. Many potential Portuguese voters headed for the country's enchanting beaches, and the abstention rate was put at 45 per cent, the highest recorded in years.
In Peru, where voting is mandatory, the turnout was far higher. However, 20 per cent of the voters waited to the very last moment to vote. The Peruvian presidential poll was the most hotly contested in the country's history. Humala wants greater state intervention in the economy, a quintessential socialist prerequisite.
This week's Peruvian polls may come to be seen as a turning point. In contradistinction with other South American nations, especially the political heavyweights such as Brazil and Argentina, in Peru the political spectrum like in neighbouring Columbia has shifted to the right. Peru and Columbia are just about the only two countries in South America where the left is on the defensive, but Peruvians have traditionally had an unfortunate predilection for the crudest forms of populism while Columbia's Western-style democracy is buttressed by Washington.
The populist moment has passed in countries such as Chile and Argentina. And, for the time being it looks like it will not come again. The picture is somewhat different in Bolivia, Brazil, Ecuador and Venezuela where traces of the traditional populism infused with a strong dose of socialism linger on.
This is the most epochal event in Peruvian politics since the political demise and disgrace of Alberto Fujimori. The son of immigrants from Japan, he painstakingly developed a folksy paternalistic political persona with heaps of charisma to boot.
Humala's bid to seduce middle class voters paid off. He promised vigorous leadership and clear political vision. Humala narrowly lost to outgoing president Alan Garcia in 2006. And, Mario Vargas Llosa, Nobel laureate called on voters to back former president Alejandro Toledo to avoid an Humala-Fujimori run-off. Llosa's counsel fell on deaf ears.
Humala's humility and ingenuousness won him votes, especially when he distanced himself from Chavez. Being candid implies addressing Peru's pressing problems head on. Being contrite entails assuming responsibility for the vast majority of the indigenous Peruvians long neglected and relegated to the poorest and most peripheral segments of society. They are entitled to have some say in the decision-making process of Peru.
Peru, after all, is the land of the Shining Path, the Maoist movement that tore the nation apart. Peru's economy with a seven per cent growth rate is not capable of alleviating widespread poverty. ‚"This growth is not reaching the poorest families,‚êç Humala protested. He stressed that poverty alleviation will be among his top priorities if he assumes the presidency.
Peru's mineral-based economy promises a prosperous future. Fujimori's bitter finale was due in part to her espousal of free market policies. She finds herself buffeted by events, out of tune with the Peruvian electorate and attacked, with some justification, for lacking the leadership capabilities of her malevolent father who ruled the country from 1990-2000 with an iron fist.
To win the next election, Fujimori will need a policy revolution ‚ê" and a big dose of luck. Her tale of ruthless ambition ending in tears is reminiscent of United States Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's ordeal.