A tale of two campaigns

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by Kenneth Hermse

Highlights of Scotland’s election campaign include Iain Gray, a wayward Maths teacher, taking flight from marauding pensioners through Glasgow’s war-torn Union Street (an accidental omission in George W. Bush’s Axis of Evil?) into the bunker-like surround of a nearby sandwich franchise.  Atrocity averted, our man was back in action little over a week later, this time in a truly hellish place: a supermarket in Ardrossan.  Here, the looming threat was Alex Salmond: the original Unionist bogeyman.

Despite these flashpoints, the campaign has been bludgeoned with the customary round of brickbats for being boring and unengaging.  Alf Young waxed fatalistically about “the biggest yawn in modern history,” while Scotland on Sunday despaired over the post-ideological blight of political apathy.  Of course, as far as Scotland and the SNP are concerned, ideology is alive and well, albeit slightly agoraphobic and holed-up in the safe-house of a proposed referendum bill.  This is, we are often told by commentators, to the taste of voters, who are of late too pampered to withstand the rough-and tumble of raw political dogma.  So, what is it to be: softly softly, apathy-inducing politics-lite, or good old-fashioned fundamentalist tub-thumping?

Perhaps it speaks of an unconscious realization of this political schizophrenia that profoundly uninteresting fellows like Iain Gray attempt to glam things up by associating themselves with more edgy third-world political regimes, as he did post-meatball marinara massacre.  However, as Rab Mcneil has pointed out, My Gray fell slightly short through his hapless knack of showing up in unsavoury places like Cambodia and Rwanda just after the show moved on and the danger passed.

David Cameron, (admittedly a bigger political beast than Gray, but still hardly one whose image would adorn front rooms throughout the land) was also guilty of applying the third-world polish, in this case by likening the SNP leader to a tin-pot dictator via his strained “El Presidente Salmondo” jibe.  Alas, if this had just a smattering of truth about it,  El Generalísimo Alejandro would surely take the easy route to throwing off the Unionist yoke by having tanks, instead of trams, trundle down Princes Street.  But no, the people have to content themselves with democracy and excruciatingly slow consensus-building towards a referendum.

All this begs the obvious question: would we all be more politically engaged, and thus happier, under a system with less democracy but more genuine (rather than contrived) thrills and spills?

I live in Peru, a kind of banana republic that also happens to have gold, copper, silver, and myriad other minerals thrown in, but probably better known as the team that gubbed us in ‘78.  Here, the electorate is forcibly engaged through compulsory voting.  This gives rise to a refreshingly unpredictable political scene, where almost anything goes.  Last year, during the nationwide mayoral elections, there was one ad hoc, provincial party whose main vote winner was a logo depicting a cartoon chicken kicking a football; in a country with an illiteracy rate exceeding 10%, these things go a long way on a ballot paper.

Like Scotland, Peru is currently in the midst of a general election campaign, though theirs is a presidential system of the kind that David Cameron doubtless had in mind when he delivered his condescending put-down to Salmond.  That being said, my own banana republic barb was a little unfair; two decades of investment-friendly governments have led to the nation enjoying a spell of unprecedented economic growth that has left its South American neighbours trailing.  Nonetheless, Peru has yet to reach the state of development that provokes clichéd laments from commentators about political disengagement, and this election is all the more riveting for it.

The first of the two rounds saw all three middle-ground, “pro-democratic” (or pro-corporation, depending on your taste) candidates cancel each other out, effectively gifting the two wild-cards a bye to the second round; these are, in the blue corner, Keiko Fujimori, spawn of a disgraced autocrat, and in the red, Ollanta Humala, a uber-nationalistic ex-army officer. The resultant second round stand-off, scheduled for June, was dubbed a “choice between AIDS and cancer” by Mario Vargas Llosa, Peru’s 2010 Nobel Laureate.

Keiko is the eldest daughter of Alberto Fujimori, a Japanese-Peruvian whose decade long rule spanning the ‘90s set much of today’s economic stability in motion.  He also took the credit for drastically reducing the operations of Shining Path and the Túpac Amaru Revolutionary Movement, two leftist revolutionary groups whose guerrilla campaigns had been terrorizing the country.  Unfortunately, while he was about it, he systematically helped himself to the nation’s coffer, curtailed freedom of expression, restricted political opposition, and flaunted human rights.  In its 2004 report, Transparency International named him as the world’s 7th most corrupt leader of the last two decades.

Fujimori stood a series of trials between 2006 and 2009 for embezzlement and human rights violations, resulting in concurrent sentences totalling 25 years.  Nonetheless (much like Last of the Summer Wine on British TV), he has retained a modicum of stubborn, lingering popularity, largely owing to his anti-terrorist efforts.  And like all self-respecting despots, Fujimori is perceived as being rather fond of power, which is where Keiko fits in.  Suspicions are rife that she is standing on a ¡Liberación para papá! ticket that could translate as anything from rigged judiciary appeal to outright presidential pardon.  Indeed, her campaign messages have been equivocal; while apologizing for the excesses of her father’s regime, she still took the trouble to describe him as the best president in Peruvian history.

Her opponent, Ollanta Humala, is also no stranger to dodgy family ties.  His father, Isaac, is the founding-father of an ultranationalist movement that advocates the displacement of Peru’s Spanish-blooded ruling elite in favour of the socioeconomically marginalized indigenous masses.  His brother, Antauro, is serving a 25-year jail sentence for the murder of four policemen during a failed coup attempt in 2005.

Ollanta narrowly lost out on the presidency in 2006 to Alan Garcia, the outbound incumbent.  (Garcia had a previous spell in office in the 1980s, when he led the country to social unrest and financial ruin.  In 2006, he was considered the lesser of two evils.)  On that occasion, he ran a gung ho campaign promoting wholesale nationalization, which many judged to bear the grubby paw-prints of a certain Hugo Chávez.

This time around, however, Ollanta has filed the edges off his radicalism, leaving what he hopes will be perceived as a more measured form of social democracy in the mould of Brazil’s Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva.  But the lingering whiff of Communism (plus the psychopathic family members) has spooked the neoliberal press into backing Keiko in the absence of their preferred centralist darlings.  Hence, the newspapers are currently replete with doom-laded warnings of robbed pension funds, suspension of congress, expulsion of foreign companies, all masterminded by the dastardly Mister Chávez (while stroking a moggy, if you will.)

In their scramble for self-preservation, of course, the establishment have conveniently forgotten why Ollanta got to where he is in the first place.  Peru is a country where corruption is rampant, and public services so atrociously underfunded as to be virtually non-existent.  The bright and shiny growth rate may impress foreign statesmen, but the underclasses have long been asking: at what cost to social justice?

So in Peru, a poor country with thrilling politics, everything is still to play for; in Scotland, a rich country with ‘disengagement’, Scotch Labour took Iain Gray’s neck measurement weeks hence.  On balance, though, maybe we’re not too badly off with our suppressed ideals and gradualist route to independence …