The vehicle is called the “Porky-mobile,” a silver all-terrain Mercedes Benz with a huge sky-blue “R” emblazoned on it. The R stands for Rafael and for Popular Renewal, the political party led by this 60-year-old businessman whose interests include hotels and tourist trains and who is nicknamed after the famous cartoon pig from Looney Tunes, Porky. It is a suggestive moniker for a presidential candidate with links to Opus Dei who has said he is “addicted to the eucharist” and who self-flagellates daily with a spiked metal cilice to preserve his celibacy. He has also proclaimed he is “in love” with the Virgin Mary, that coronavirus lockdowns are “Marxist” and that there is a global conspiracy afoot designed to destroy the economy and install a “Socialist paradise.”
It is 2pm on a Saturday in mid-March, three weeks before Peru goes to the ballot box in a general election on Sunday April 11, and the ultra-conservative Rafael López Aliaga, who in January registered only 2.4% in a poll of voter intentions, steps out of the Porky-mobile to inaugurate a local party office in a locksmith’s shop. It is a neighborhood of chicken takeaways, stores and garages in Villa María del Triunfo, one of the most densely populated districts of Lima and one of the hardest-hit by Covid-19 infection rates. López Aliaga, in a sky-blue shirt, his face bright red in the heat, smashes a bottle of cheap champagne with a hammer, lowers his face mask and shouts: “Nobody can stop the wave of hope! The wave that fights alone against the filth of corruption! We are the only ones. They are Odebrecht’s candidates. Look how the gutter press are making a mockery of us… but they’ve only got until July 28. The mermelada has had its day, gentlemen!”
Mermelada is a word used in Peru to refer to people who accept bribes and López Aliaga’s reference to Odebrecht concerns the worldwide political corruption scandal linked to the Brazilian construction giant, which in 2019 admitted making slush fund payments to election campaigns across Latin America and further afield in return for the awarding of contracts following an investigation by Brazilian, US and Swiss prosecutors.
Addressing a crowd of around 50 supporters carrying sky-blue banners and flags, López Aliaga continues his diatribe. “No more lockdowns either, enough is enough, either we die of Covid or we die of hunger. People need to work, enough, we have to keep our doors open.”
“Rafael! Rafael! Rafael!” the crowd chant in response.
As the day progresses, López Aliaga cruises the streets of southeastern Lima accompanied by a motorcade of cars and trucks flying banners, greeting people from the Porky-mobile and handing out shopping bags with an “R” stamped on them. With less than a month remaining before the election, the opinion polls have turned his campaign into something more than a caricature of the Latin American populist right. By March 28, 2.8% had become 9.7%, according to a survey by the Peru National Institute of Statistics (IEP), a meager number but one that could, in the fragmented political landscape of the presidential elections, be enough to see López Aliaga through to a second round of voting that would pit him against Yohny Lescano, the liberal Popular Action candidate who led the polls at the end of March with 11%. Or, as the political scientist Alberto Vergara observes: “A second round between the developing versions of Bolsonaro and López Obrador.”
In the current political panorama ahead of Sunday’s election, risking any prediction is akin to jumping off an Andean mountain in a knock-off flying suit. The last four national polls, published a week before the vote, forecast a tie among the candidates in the opening round, with none garnering even 13% of voter intention. López Aliaga, who has lost second place in the polls but is still among the six candidates making up the favorites, says that he doesn’t believe in polls published by the “mermelada” press anyway.
“Why don’t you believe in polls?” EL PAÍS asked López Aliaga.
“No, I don’t believe in these polls,” he replied.
“All three have you in second or third place.”
“But this is false. You’ll see, you’re going to be very surprised. We are above 20% at the national level.”
“And how did you come by that figure? Based on what information?
“I have a pollster, I’m not one-eyed. I am in a consolidated economic position. I have my own pollster who gives me a representative sample as well. I pay for private polls and they give me accurate information from each region.”
“And what is this polling company called? Where can we see this data?
“I’m not going to tell you that, it’s a private matter.”
A billion-dollar candidate
There are many things that López Aliaga prefers not to explain. An industrial engineer and former university lecturer, he seems to have taken advantage of the spirit of confusion and cheerful discursive impunity that has reigned over the presidential elections better than anybody else. In the context of the coronavirus pandemic, Peru suffered one of the most calamitous slumps in GDP in Latin America with 200 deaths a day currently being attributed to the virus. In his proselytist caravan, speaking to market stallholders or housewives who have come out to sweep their doorsteps, López Aliaga lays out some of his campaign promises: that on the same day he is sworn in he will expel Odebrecht from the country and that he will personally fly to the US to buy 40 million doses of Covid-19 vaccinations, although he has never detailed exactly how he intends to do either.
Despite exploiting his image as a political outsider – a space that former soccer player George Forsyth, the National Victory candidate, also occupies – López Aliaga is not a newcomer to the institutional fold. He ran unsuccessfully in parliamentary elections in 2020 with the National Solidarity party (which later became Popular Renewal) – he gained 1.49% of the vote, insufficient to win a seat – and he was a councilman from 2007-10 under the mandate of former mayor of Lima Luis Castañeda Lossio, who is currently fighting cancer and under investigation for his alleged links to the Odebrecht scandal.
López Aliaga’s attacks against the press, his stance against abortion and his anti-gender rhetoric are also not new, neither is his penchant for conspiracy theories or his public image as a businessman who doesn’t need to steal from anyone because he already has a fortune, a profile of the politician-company director that has been exploited by other rightist leaders in the region such as Sebastián Piñera in Chile or Mauricio Macri in Argentina. López Aliaga has interests in 42 companies, two offshore bank accounts (investigated among the Panama Papers) and assets he calculates at “over a billion dollars, just in trains and hotels,” which largely come from concessions and usufructs granted by the state and the Catholic Church during the privatization process initiated under the presidency of Alberto Fujimori.
The only novelty about López Aliaga is that his tilt at the presidency has suddenly become a genuine possibility, even if it is a story that has been played out before in Latin America.
A Persian market
If he had to explain the political landscape to a friend passing through Lima, Vergara, who has published several books and articles on Latin American politics and is a post-doctoral researcher at Harvard, would not mince his introductory words: “We are facing a shitty scenario, but it is one that can be explained. We are not facing anything unusual; it is not as though there aren’t precedents in Peru and in Latin America.”
Since July 2016, when the rightist Pedro Pablo Kuczynski ascended to the presidency after defeating the rightist Keiko Fujimori by the narrowest of margins, Peru has been embroiled in an interminable series of crises that have included, among other things, Kuczynski’s resignation, the suicide of former president Alan García, the jailing of Keiko Fujimori and the dissolution of Congress and removal from office of Martín Vizcarra, driven by the one that replaced it, an action that saw thousands of Peruvians take to the streets in protest in the middle of the pandemic and gave Peru the rare distinction of having had three different presidents in the space of a week.
Nobody in Latin America is untouched by political crises but over the past few years Peru appears to have become obsessed by winning the prize for institutional instability in the region. The origin of this situation – a permanent power struggle between everybody and carried out in view of everybody, with a majority of politicians shunning loyalty to a collective project or even a single party, and to anything else that isn’t of sectorial or personal interest – is a “very long degradation of political representation in Peru,” says Vergara, and the result of the laws that have governed this representation, a dynamic “plagued by the buying and selling of places on lists for Congress and candidacies for mayoral and gubernatorial posts. A kind of huge Persian market of representation in a system of auctions where anybody can end up in any party and where the most appreciated asset is how much money you can contribute to a campaign.”
This spirit of improvisation and opportunism extends further when you rummage in the depths of the electoral lists. An example of this is the selection process for Popular Renewal Congressional candidates. Toward the end of March, journalistic investigations revealed that López Aliaga’s party – after its leader said he had interviewed 500 hopefuls via Zoom when he was self-isolating with Covid-19 last year – had at least eight candidates in the running to represent different parts of the country in Congress, despite the fact that all of them lived in Lima. Some of them were street vendors or small-business owners whose own families were unaware they were campaigning. One Popular Renewal candidate put forward to represent the Pasco region, for example, had never set foot there. “Do you have a basic understanding of the functions of a member of Congress?” a reporter asked. “Not really, no. But that’s where I’m going. That’s what I’m doing,” the youngster replied.
“Peru perhaps constitutes the most extreme example of the collapse of the party system in Latin America,” Steven Levitzky and Mauricio Zavaleta write in their book Why are there no political parties in Peru? In this “partyless Democracy,” as the authors describe it, where politicians have developed strategies to successfully compete for a position without having to align themselves to a political ideology, López Aliaga’s candidacy seems to be a grotesque example of the best-selling product in the electoral marketplace in Latin America over the past decade. “A profile based on authoritarian speeches, on a strong hand, and constantly generating fake content on social media with thousands of bots on Twitter. A machine of disinformation to polarize and spread fear,” says Óscar Castilla, a journalist and editor of Ojo Público (Public eye), which, as well as publishing investigations into the opacity of López Aliaga’s business interests, has also spent months analyzing the campaign messages generated by his party in the press and on social media.
It is a formula that has been seen in campaigns worldwide from Donald Trump to Jair Bolsonaro, says Castilla, but which in Peru has yielded the benefit of being “a novelty” and privileged coverage by the popular press. According to a study carried out by the Parties and Elections Research Group at the Pontifical Catholic University of Peru, as of March 28 López Aliaga had been interviewed most frequently among the 18 presidential candidates in the race, with 43 overall. The majority of these (29), were given to Willax Televisión, a channel known for its conservative bias and broadcasting of false news.
A leap of faith
When the Porky-mobile stopped at a red light, a reporter who had accompanied the motorcade from the early morning and had been trying to get an interview with López Aliaga for hours managed to run up to the Mercedes and fire a quick question at the candidate: “Rafael, why do you want to be president?”
“To work my ass off for Peru!” he shouted in response, as the Porky-mobile continued on its way to Pamplona Alta, one of Lima’s poorest neighborhoods.
“I like Rafael because he says things like that, he tells it like it is, to your face,” says 31-year-old Yorlan Nestares, one of the “Porky-lovers” who accompanied López Aliaga’s procession around Lima. “He’s not a politician, that’s why sometimes some of the things he says can sound a bit crude.”
“He has experience of running big companies. He is against Odebrecht and the caviar agenda trying to impose abortion, he’s true to his faith,” says Jenny Contreras, a 37-year-old bookshop owner from Villa El Salvador.
In the view of political expert Carlos Meléndez, the rise of a personality with such a radical discourse in a political landscape filled with conservative figures goes beyond the crisis of the party system and also reflects a reality in which “the electorate is hyper-fragmented: it is a niche electorate with populist figures for every taste,” says the author of Mini-candidates, an analysis of the various electoral campaigns and the faces that front them. “Every one of these factions is incapable of speaking to more than 10% of Peruvian voters. We are witnessing a campaign for fanatics, for sects and for lovers.”
A few years ago, says Meléndez, “it might have proven very embarrassing to put forward a figure like Rafael López Aliaga,” at a time when voters were more likely to get behind someone like Keiko Fujimori, leader of a party that “carried a lot of interests on its back.” But with the discrediting of Fujimorismo and the growth of more liberal movements, López Aliaga has been converted into a voice for those sectors who feel cornered by the “progressive wave” of student, feminist and citizen protests and the MeToo movement. These have also “led López Aliaga to publicly display the whip with which he flogs himself. It is an act of desperation, because he feels genuinely threatened.”
A couple of weeks after the Porky-mobile’s procession through Lima’s Cono Este, reacting perhaps to losing ground in the polls he professes not to take any notice of, López Aliaga decided to take part in a debate organized by the National Jury of Elections. There, in front of millions of Peruvians, the firebrand accustomed to attacking the press and his rivals at political meetings and during his interviews on Willax limited himself to reading prepared statements. He stammered. He had the wrong document. You could hardly make out what he was saying. His self-confidence appeared to evaporate in an arena he had no control over.
However, in a landscape of uncertainty about the future, candidacies such as López Aliaga’s still give off a certain air of security for a sector of the electorate – between 6.8% and 8.4% depending on which poll you read – who are waiting for a leader who will solve their problems in a flash. Vergara, who has witnessed numerous elections, also doesn’t believe that the attraction is an inexplicable phenomenon: “The more critical the times are, the more open people tend to be to taking a leap of faith.”
English version by Rob Train.