election : peru 1990 / 1992

Illustration of ballot box in pink and white. Box says "election"
illustration by iggdeh

by Amy Obermeyer

In the lead-up to Peru’s presidential election in the spring of 1990, sitting president Alan García was deeply unpopular. García, who was ineligible for reelection, represented Peru’s center-left, social democratic Aprista party. Like much of the region, Peru was still in the grips of the Latin American debt crisis that first hit in 1982. Rampant inflation was everywhere. García’s populist government had initially managed to stave off the disaster, but by 1988, García’s measures were no longer succeeding and by 1989, inflation was at 2000%. Furthermore, as economic conditions worsened, the brutality of the Maoist insurrectionary group Sendero Luminoso (Shining Path) increased, and so too did the brutality of the state’s response. In January 1989, García’s popular approval, once as high as 90%, had fallen to 9%. Among the electorate, distrust for political parties in general was at an all-time high, and the successive failures of two centrist governments—García’s and that of his predecessor, Fernando Belaúnde Terry—from the two major centrist parties, coupled with a voter preference for centrist policies, left a marked void in Peru’s political landscape. 

October 1988 : Luis Alva Castro, the country’s sitting second vice president, assumes the role of leader of the Aprista party following president García’s resignation from this position, ultimately leading to his candidacy on the Aprista ticket. Given the sitting president’s low approval ratings, no one expects Alva Castro to win the first round. However, Alva Castro’s strategy will come to bank on Peru’s mandatory run-off rule, which demands a run-off when no one candidate achieves a majority of the vote, coupled with popular resistance to his opponent Vargas Llosa’s extreme neoliberal platform. Alva Castro aims to be second in the first round of the election, and to consolidate the votes of the other candidates in the second round.

5 June 1989 : Eminent novelist Mario Vargas Llosa, perhaps best-known for his novel La ciudad y los perros, translated into English as The Time of the Hero, announces his candidacy under the banner Fredemo, short for Frente Democrático (Democratic Front), Fredemo represents a coalition of three parties unifying economically liberal and socially conservative groups under a single candidate. Fredemo and Vargas Llosa embrace neoliberal principles, advocating for an “economic shock” that includes large-scale privatization measures.

September 1989 : The leftist coalition Izquierda Unida (IU) undergoes a major schism after disagreements as to whether to welcome more centrist parties into the coalition. Alfonso Barrantes, the former mayor of Lima and supporter of moderate inclusion, leaves the IU to run under a separate ticket, Izquierda Socialista (IS). Before the schism, Barrantes leads early polls for the 1990 presidential election, buoyed by the support of working-class voters in both rural and urban areas. Barrantes had placed second to García in the 1985 election, withdrawing after the first round to avoid a run-off election. In a move designed to turn popular sentiment against Barrantes, the IU nominates Henry Pease García as its candidate. Pease had worked alongside Barrantes during Barrantes’ mayorship. Pease and Barrantes have few ideological differences, and voters largely view the split as a personal conflict.

5 October 1989 : Alberto Fujimori, president of the Universidad Nacional Agraria (National Agrarian University) and host of a television show called Concertando, founds his party, Cambio 90 (Change 90) with little fanfare. Cambio 90 is just one of many so-called partidos pitufos (smurf parties) in Peru’s political landscape and it initially receives little press coverage. Although Fujimori’s party lacks a specific platform, in the popular imaginary, he comes to be widely perceived as a centrist. His campaign motto is “work, honesty, and technology.”  

8-11 March 1990 : In the weeks leading up to the election, a major nationwide poll places Fujimori in the low-single digits. The polls from this week are the first to even include Fujimori.

8 April 1990 : As predicted from the outset, no one candidate receives a majority of the vote, and the election goes to a run-off. Vargas Llosa emerges as the leader in the first round, receiving 27.6% of the vote. Meanwhile, Fujimori places second with 24.6% of the vote, a result that would have been unthinkable a month prior. Vargas Llosa’s party gains 40 seats in the Chamber of Deputies, holding 62 seats out of 180. The Aprista party loses half their seats, but retains 53, while the left loses nearly two-thirds of its seats, with the now-separated left parties together maintaining a scant 23 seats. Cambio 90 holds 32 of 180 seats, nowhere near a plurality, let alone a mandate. Getting legislation passed will require coalition-building and compromise.

Many attribute Fujimori’s rapid rise in large part to perceptions of elitism on the part of Fredemo. Vargas Llosa is widely seen as the candidate of the wealthy, mostly white elite in a country wherein whites make up only 5.9% of the population. These beliefs are buttressed by Fredemo’s advertising campaign, which dominated election spending and employed international marketing firms. It is said that some of them don’t even speak Spanish. Fujimori’s largely word-of-mouth campaign and his ability, as a professor of agriculture, to relate to rural peasants play a large role in his rapid ascent. Lacking a specific platform facilitates Fujimori’s assembling of a disparate coalition consisting of indigenous rural peasants, Protestant and Pentecostal Christians, small business owners, and informal sector workers. Fujimori’s status as a child of immigrants helps his political outsider appeal, and his Nisei 1 accent helps him connect with voters, many of whom speak Quechua rather than Spanish as a first language. One of his campaign slogans is “a president like you.”

3 June 1990 : One week before the election marks the first debate between the two front-runners Vargas Llosa and Fujimori. Vargas Llosa’s critiques of Fujimori’s vague platform does little to stem the tide of popular sentiment. Vargas Llosa describes the “great proposal” of his own party as “privatiz[ing] the public sector.” In addition to the economic shock proposal, Vargas Llosa also proposes a plan to transition peasant coca farmers to new crops, a policy supported by the US, who had also offered to train Peruvian soldiers in anti-trafficking jungle warfare. In the debates, Fujimori in turn pledges to resist privatization and foreign intervention. In response to Vargas Llosa’s “great proposal,” Fujimori argues that “apply[ing] shock during a period of inflation serves only to make the problem worse.” He promises that a specific platform is forthcoming, but it never seems to materialize.

10 June 1990 : Fujmori wins the run-off election with 62.32% of the vote. Despite polls suggesting a much closer race, there is an over twenty-point margin separating Fujimori and Vargas Llosa. Hoping to stave off the blatant neoliberalism Vargas Llosa offered, the candidates vanquished in the first round had largely thrown their support behind Fujimori. 

28 July 1990 : Fujimori is inaugurated as president of Peru. His cabinet appointments lack any ideological or political consistency. 

8 August 1990 : Fujimori announces austerity measures similar to those he decried in the debates, measures that collectively come to be known as “Fujishock.” As a result, the cost of staple foods quadrupled and gasoline prices rose to 30 times their previous prices. Unrest breaks out, and Fujimori deploys police and the military to respond to the turbulence. Reports suggest the state forces fired into crowds. In the chaos, four are killed, twelve are wounded, and thousands are arrested. 

3 June 1991 : In light of the ongoing economic crisis and insurgent activity, Fujimori strikes a deal with congress to pass Law 25327, which grants emergency powers allowing him to rule more or less by decree in a number of key areas for a period of 150 days. Due to the split nature of congress, he is unable to pass much of his proposed legislation by typical channels. Fujimori issued a vast number of decrees, including 126 in just the final month of the 150-day period. Many of these decrees exceeded the boundaries of presidential powers allowed by congress.

5 April 1992 : Fujimori appears on national television to announce that he is “temporarily dissolving” congress and “reorganizing” the judiciary, an act known as the autogolpe, or self-coup. He deploys the military to block lawmakers from gathering, and soldiers tear gas a group of senators who nevertheless attempt to hold a session.

Given the small number of seats held by Cambio 90, Fujimori had been unable to get the congressional support needed to enact the liberalizing reforms demanded by the IMF in exchange for aid—although he claimed the coup had been necessary to rid the state of corrupt, deeply-entrenched interests. Foreign governments initially balk and refuse to recognize Fujimori’s new government, but his willingness to cooperate with the IMF and with  anti-drug efforts ultimately causes a change of many hearts, especially that of George H.W. Bush. Polling suggests that 71% of Peruvians supported Fujimori’s dissolution of congress and 89% supported his reorganization of the judiciary.

13 November 1992 : General Jaime Salinas leads an attempted counter-coup with the stated aim of restoring democracy. The attempt is aborted at the last minute and Salinas ends up jailed.

22 November 1992 : Elections for the so-called Democratic Constituent Congress are held. The congress’s stated aim is to write a new constitution. Many major parties abstain from participating in the election in protest. Fujimori’s party wins 44 of 80 seats. 

4 September 1993 : The Democratic Constituent Congress, convened by Fujimori, presents a new constitution to the voting public. Under the new constitution, Fujimori is able to seek reelection, which had been prohibited by the previous. It also gives him the authority to dissolve congress and removes congress’s role in confirming high-ranking military officers and ambassadors. Treason becomes a capital offense.

31 October 1993 : A popular referendum on the new constitution is held and the constitution is approved 52.2% to 47.7%. In a shift from the 1990 election outcome, Fujimori’s constitution is more popular in urban Lima than in more rural areas.

Postscript  : To the surprise of many, Fujimori remained popular despite his undermining of Peru’s democracy. On the heels of the January 1995 Cenapa War with Ecuador, Fujimori was reelected decisively with 64.3% of the vote in the first (and only) round. One of his first acts following reelection was to sign a bill into law that granted amnesty to police and soldiers accused of human rights abuses between 1980 and 1995. The state’s harsh tactics toward Sendero Luminoso had left many casualties in its wake. According to 2003’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission findings, the state was responsible for at least one-third of the 70,000 casualties, at least 75% of those indigenous Quechua speakers, in the conflicts between Sendero Luminoso, Movimiento Revolucionario Túpac Amaru (MRTA), and the state. Other subsequent studies have placed the percentage even higher. Around this time, Fujimori earned the nickname “Chinochet,” a play on the name of Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet and the word “Chino,” widely used in Peru for all individuals of East Asian descent. Fujimori is said to enjoy the nickname.

In 2000, despite the regulations in the very constitution that Fujimori’s party promulgated, Fujimori ran again for reelection. With Fujimori coming in at just under 50% of the vote, the race went into a run-off with challenger Alejandro Toledo. Toledo boycotted the election due to allegations of fraud, and Fujimori countered by making voting mandatory. Toledo suggested his voters spoil their ballots, and ultimately almost one-third were declared invalid. In the second round, Fujimori won by a landslide. However, in September of 2000, a video was leaked showing the head of Peru’s national security agency bribing a congressman. On 20 November 2000, as a result of the scandal, Fujimori faxed his resignation from Japan. The legislature refused to accept, instead impeaching him.

Following his reelection to a second term in 1995, Fujimori headed a large-scale forced sterilization campaign that ultimately sterilized over 200,000 mostly indigenous women. This campaign garnered international support from the UN, the US, and Japan among others. In 2007, Fujimori was convicted of abuse of power and sentenced to six years. While awaiting trial, he had announced plans to run for office in Japan. In April 2009, Fujimori was further found guilty of human rights abuses for his roles in ordering the La Cantuta and Barrios Altos massacres, which combined had left 34 dead, and was given a sentence of 25 years. Later that same year, he was found guilty of embezzlement, and in a fourth trial, also in 2009, he was likewise found guilty of bribery. 

Fujimorism remains a potent force in Peruvian politics. A 2005 public opinion survey conducted via the University of Lima found Fujimori retained a 45.6% approval rating.  In 2011, Fujimori’s daughter Keiko Fujimori ran for the presidency and made it to the run-off, where she lost to Ollanta Humala by less than 3% of the vote. Rudy Giuliani was one of her campaign’s advisors. In 2016 she ran again, and was again runner-up in the run-off election, this time losing to Pedro Pablo Kuczynski by only half a percent. Her Fujimorist party, Fuerza Popular, had nonetheless managed to win the majority of seats in congress, which they held until the 2020 election. In 2018, she was arrested as part of the Odebrecht Scandal that rocked Latin America, and she is currently awaiting charges. 

  1. Second-generation immigrant of Japanese descent