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PERU: Popular Women Vote-Catchers Stand in for Real Participation

Ángel Páez

LIMA, Feb 7 2011 (IPS) - Women candidates nominated for the presidential and legislative elections in Peru in April tend to be big names in the worlds of sports, television or show business, or are following family tradition. But political parties are failing to promote meaningful participation by women in politics.

Cenaida Uribe (in red) with members of congressional women's caucus.  Credit: Courtesy Congress of Peru

Cenaida Uribe (in red) with members of congressional women's caucus. Credit: Courtesy Congress of Peru

There are two women among the 11 presidential hopefuls seeking to succeed President Alan García on Jul. 28. In the 2006 elections, there were three women running for president.

A third woman, Mercedes Araoz of the governing Partido Aprista Peruano (PAP), resigned her candidacy because her party would not honour her demand that persons under investigation for corruption be excluded from the party slates.

Keiko Fujimori, at present running third in the polls, is the daughter of former president Alberto Fujimori (1990-2000), who is running her election campaign from prison where he is serving 25 years for crimes against humanity and corruption.

Juliana Reymer, a former street vendor who now runs her own small business, became the candidate of the small centrist Fuerza Nacional party when its previous nominee left the party to support former president Alejandro Toledo (2001-2006), who is the front-runner in the polls.

“These presidential and congressional elections are a disgrace,” Rosa María Alfaro, head of Calandria, an organisation promoting women’s political participation, told IPS. “Male arrogance is the basis of even Keiko Fujimori’s campaign, because she depends on her father. There is a kind of gender dependence.”

Alfaro also criticised the way political parties have drawn up their lists of candidates for the next Congress, to be elected for a five-year term in April. By law, at least 30 percent of the candidates must be women.

But to meet the quotas, parties have recruited prominent women from other walks of life, rather than training and promoting their own women members. Since the 1990s, “outsiders” and flash-in-the-pan candidates have held an attraction for Peruvian voters.

Former showgirl and television presenter July Pinedo, a 1990s sex symbol, is on the congressional candidate list for the centre-right PAP.

According to local media, Alberto Fujimori personally drew up the congressional list for the right-wing Fuerza 2011, formally headed by his daughter. The list of candidates includes Gina Pacheco, his personal nurse and a frequent visitor to his prison cell, and Leyla Chihuán, the captain of the national women’s team for volleyball, a popular sport in Peru.

And at the top of the list for Toledo’s centre-right Perú Posible party is 1980s volleyball star Cecilia Tait, while soap opera actress Ebelin Ortiz is also a candidate.

The right-wing alliance Cambio Radical, meanwhile, has nominated former starlet Daysi Ontaneda, frequently featured in the gossip columns.

The head of Asociación Civil Transparencia, Percy Medina, told IPS that in a study on female political participation carried out by his organisation, women political leaders and activists complained of “arbitrary decisions” by male leaders who impose “media personalities with no political experience instead of active members of organisations” as party candidates.

In the survey of women leaders and activists from five different political parties, all of the respondents emphasised the lack of a level playing field between men and women in terms of access to leadership posts and candidate nominations, Medina said.

In his opinion, “a culture of machismo which hinders women from achieving a more decisive role” is behind this inequality and explains the profusion of actresses and sportswomen on candidate lists, instead of experienced women politicians.

“The perception is that women’s participation in Peruvian politics has slid backwards,” even though women presidential or congressional candidates are now quite common, said Medina.

Alfaro predicted that the April elections will not resemble the November 2010 regional and municipal polls, when two women battled it out for the post of mayor of Lima. The winner was Susana Villarán, a moderate left-winger, and her rival was Lourdes Flores, a conservative.

Both women had been presidential candidates in earlier elections and had recognised track records as politicians when they stood for the key position of mayor of the capital. “Their proposals were well developed and were debated in the media and among the general public,” said Alfaro. “It was a campaign and a democratic contest truly led by women.”

Alfaro, an expert on communications and gender, said the presidential candidates and Alberto Fujimori are using popular women as vote-catchers, at a time when ideology is weak and personal conflicts are rampant in political parties, and male politicians are desperate to win at any cost.

For instance, Luis Castañeda, the presidential candidate for the populist Solidaridad Nacional, placed second in the polls, chose as his vice presidential running mate Carmen Núñez, the estranged wife of a millionaire businessman and provincial mayor who supports a different presidential candidate.

Lisbeth Guillén of the Manuela Ramos women’s movement agreed that Peru’s political parties “do not truly encourage women’s participation,” in spite of the fact that in opinion polls voters say they want to see more women active in politics and are sympathetic to the potential prospect of a woman president.

Guillén pointed out that electoral quotas for women are enshrined in the Peruvian constitution, and that thanks to this, the number of women in Congress has increased steadily. The outgoing parliament (2006-2011) has 35 women lawmakers, equivalent to 29 percent of the seats, compared to 26 women in the 2000-2006 legislature, and 14 in 1995-2000.

The activist said political parties nominate crowd-pleasing personalities who can attract a large number of votes because they must secure at least five percent of the national vote in elections in order to maintain their official registration.

However, she said voters have another way to make their voices heard: the so-called “preferential vote,” which allows voters to select candidates on congressional lists according to their own preference, thus changing the order of the candidates pre-established by the parties.

Cenaida Uribe, president of the congressional women’s caucus, offered another viewpoint on women’s presence in parliament. A former volleyball player for Peru, she belongs to the nationalist Gana Perú party led by former presidential candidate Ollanta Humala, in fourth place in the polls.

“Every one deserves an opportunity to make a contribution,” she told IPS. Artists, for example, can promote laws on cultural affairs, and she as a sportswoman has been able to push for laws that favour sports. “Newcomers to Congress who have no political experience should not be under-estimated,” she said.

In her view, the legislative term that ends in July “has been exceptional,” because for the first year Congress was presided over by a woman speaker, all the commissions have included women, and “indigenous women, coca-growing peasant women, Afro-Peruvian women and low-income women are represented in parliament.”

But Uribe, who is black, stressed that in spite of these positive aspects, “there is still too much machismo in Congress, which cuts women off from access to the democratic decision-making process.”

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