Imagen por Ernesto Arias/EPA
Peru's presidential elections are at risk of descending into turmoil after the electoral authorities pulled the second-placed candidate from the contest on a minor technicality, just one month before the vote.Center-right policy wonk Julio Guzmán had recently emerged as the only contender capable of challenging runaway frontrunner Keiko Fujimori, who is campaigning on the controversial hard-right legacy of her father, jailed 1990s president Alberto Fujimori.
Opinion polls indicate she has the support of between 30 percent and 35 percent of the electorate ahead of the first round vote on April 10. Guzmán had recently risen into the high teens, putting the 45-year-old public policy PHD clearly ahead of the several other candidates struggling to break out of single digits.Polls also showed Guzmán and Fujimori in a dead heat if they faced each other in the runoff vote on June 5.Wednesday's decision by the National Electoral Tribunal to ban Guzmán has been met with widespread anger and ridicule in Peru, with critics warning that a petty decision by faceless bureaucrats has undermined the country's already fragile democracy. There were also allegations that the ruling deliberately favored Fujimori and former president Alan García, who is trailing badly in the polls in effort to win a third term in office.Related: An Alleged Killer, a Plagiarist, and a Jailed Ex-Leader's Kid: Meet Peru's Presidential FieldGustavo Gorriti, the country's leading investigative reporter, blasted the decision as a blatant attempt to fix the election."The dirty tricks of trying to win through bureaucratic pencil-pushing what they can't win at the ballot box represents a fraud forewarned," he wrote on the website of human rights nonprofit IDL.At a press conference on Thursday, Guzmán vowed to continue campaigning and said he would take his case before the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights.
"The voter decides the elections," he said. "For me, the word ´fraud´ is not exaggerated."He also claimed that the Organization of American States, which monitors democracy in the region, had contacted him since the ruling and was sending a delegation to Peru next week.Guzmán's candidacy was disallowed because members of his party, Todos Por El Perú, or Everyone for Peru, were given 14 days' notice of the internal assembly that elected him last year. The law requires 15 days' notice. The National Electoral Tribunal also ruled that the party had also failed to correctly register some of the activists at the assembly as Todos Por el Perú members."In a serious country, these problems would have been dealt with, and solved, last July or August, not left until one month before the election," José Alejandro Godoy, a political columnist in Perúvian paper Exitoso, told VICE News. "No one in Guzmán's party has complained about him being their candidate or how he was chosen. This kind of incompetence [by the tribunal] just further undermines the already precarious nature of our democratic institutions."Related: Peru's Booming Cocaine Business Is Turning It Into Latin America's Newest Narco StateAnother fierce critic of the decision was Diego García Sayán, the former justice minister and now a judge at the Inter-American Court on Human Rights, who oversaw the drafting of the 2001 electoral law cited in the ruling.
In a newspaper column written while the court was still deliberating, García warned that the legislation included a specific clause aimed at protecting citizens' and candidates' right to political participation against the overzealous application of red tape. He wrote that barring Guzmán's candidacy was exactly the kind of "overwhelming stupidity of all-powerful bureaucratic mentalities" undermining more substantive priorities, such as the need for free and fair elections, that the clause was supposed to prevent.Barring a viable presidential candidate over a minor, and correctable, bureaucratic detail is thought to be unprecedented in modern Latin America, since the region's military dictatorships were replaced by democracies, Harvard political scientist Steven Levitsky wrote in his Peruvian newspaper column.The ruling appears to ease the path to the presidency for Keiko Fujimori. Her father's authoritarian government saw massive corruption, and extrajudicial executions of suspected — and sometimes entirely innocent — members of the Shining Path rebel group. He also presided over a mass forced sterilization campaign directed at poor, mainly indigenous, women.Related: Justice Might Just Be Possible in the Case of Mass Forced Sterilizations in PeruBeyond the alleged bureaucratic small-mindedness, there were also more sinister claims that the National Electoral Tribunal had deliberately favored Guzmán's rivals.
One of the judges, Jorge Rodríguez Vélez, has numerous ties to former president Alan García's APRA party.These include serving on the commission that recommended prisoners for presidential pardons during García's second presidential term, from 2006 to 2011. With his reputation badly tarnished by the narco-pardons scandal, in which other aides were found to have taken bribes to free hundreds of convicted drug traffickers, García has been languishing in the polls with around 5 percent support."It's a valid investigation that you are carrying out but I don't have any connection to APRA," Rodríguez Vélez told reporters on Wednesday. "My independence and impartiality are assured."García, meanwhile, was trying to distance himself from the controversy, saying that attempting to pick up Guzmán's lost votes would be in "very bad taste".Along with Guzmán, the National Electoral Tribunal also barred another candidate on Wednesday, César Acuña, for handing out cash at campaign meeting. This contravenes a new law designed to address the widespread practice of populist candidates winning over poor voters through largesse, rather than their policy proposals or inspirational leadership.Few in Peru have been shedding tears for Acuña, a self-made millionaire who owns a string of lucrative private universities and had previously been caught out apparently plagiarizing his master's and doctoral theses. But the decision to remove him from the race has intensified questions about why Fujimori has not also been investigated for allegedly handing out cash to supporters at a campaign rally on February 14 in Callao, the industrial port adjoining Lima.Fujimori has yet to respond to the allegations although one of her supporters, Ana Aguilar Terrones, suggested to Peruvian newspaper La República that there was no violation as the money had been raised independently from Fujimori's Fuerza Popular or Popular Force party.Related: Video Shows Frenzied Clash at Protest Over Plan to Build Massive Copper Mine in PeruFollow Simeon Tegel on Twitter: @SimeonTegel