A worker of Peru's National Electoral Process Office prepares electoral material in Lima, March 21, 2016.
Janine Costa / Reuters

Peru is no stranger to political turmoil: in the 1980s and early 1990s, a leftist guerrilla movement, the Shining Path, threatened the viability of the Peruvian state, contributing to the collapse of the economy and hyperinflation. Former President Alberto Fujimori (1990–2000) succeeded in wresting back the initiative from the Shining Path, but at the cost of permitting rampant corruption, widespread human rights abuses, and a takeover of government institutions.

But since Fujimori’s resignation in 2000, the last several years have come as a welcome surprise, as successive democratically elected governments have peacefully transitioned in and out of office. The economy has grown for 16 consecutive years; in that time the poverty rate has fallen from over 50 percent of the population to 22 percent. And in 2009, Fujimori was sentenced to 25 years in prison on charges of corruption, abduction, and murder during his 1990–2000 tenure.

But the upcoming presidential election, slated for April 10, could be putting years of progress in serious jeopardy.

This story starts earlier in March, when two of the leading presidential candidates were barred from running. Everyone for Peru (TPP) party candidate Julio Guzmán, who had been polling at 16 percent and was running second in the race, was banned after his party was found not to have followed appropriate internal procedures in confirming his candidacy. César Acuña of the Alliance for Progress (APP), who was polling third or fourth, was disqualified for handing out payments to voters, which is forbidden under electoral law.

Peru's presidential candidate Julio Guzman attends a news conference after the Special Jury of Elections, which approves presidential tickets, accepted a citizen's petition to declare Guzman's candidacy "inadmissible" for upcoming April elections, in Lima
Peru's presidential candidate Julio Guzman attends a news conference after the Special Jury of Elections, which approves presidential tickets, accepted a citizen's petition to declare Guzman's candidacy "inadmissible" for upcoming April elections, in Lima March 4, 2016.
Mariana Bazo / Reuters
Both men appealed the decisions on the grounds that their political rights had been violated because the courts had not followed due process. And on March 14, Peru’s National Electoral Jury (JNE), which is in charge of overseeing electoral processes, rejected their claims.

The cases represented the first time in Peru’s recent history that a candidate has been blocked in such a manner from the presidential race. The JNE, historically more of an election observer, thus prompted widespread criticism with its decision to become more active, including from a former head of the country’s Constitutional Court, César Landa, who called the move “mistaken” and disrespectful of democratic norms. Outside organizations have also weighed in: the Organization of American States expressed concern that disqualifying candidates so close to the election date could only generate uncertainty and confusion.

Peruvian shamans holding posters of Peru's presidential candidates Keiko Fujimori and Cesar Acuna perform a ritual of predictions for the new year at Morro Solar hill in Chorrillos, Lima, Peru, December 29, 2015.
Peruvian shamans holding posters of Peru's presidential candidates Keiko Fujimori and Cesar Acuna perform a ritual of predictions for the new year at Morro Solar hill in Chorrillos, Lima, Peru, December 29, 2015.
Mariana Bazo / Reuters

The move certainly helps clear the path for longtime front-runner Keiko Fujimori—daughter of the disgraced Alberto and head of the opposition Fuerza Popular (FP) party—to consolidate her lead. A former economy minister and prime minister, Pedro Pablo Kuczynski, better known as PPK, of the eponymous Peruvians for Change (PPK), has also benefited from Guzmán’s absence from the race. Most signs now point to an eventual second round runoff between Fujimori and PPK.

Such a scenario inspires little confidence. For one, unproven allegations that the JNE’s decisions owed much to Fujimori’s influence within the system deepen the divide in the Peruvian political landscape between defiantly pro- and anti-Fujimori forces. Fujimori is a uniquely divisive personality in contemporary Peruvian politics. She has steadfast support from those who credit her father with the decimation of the Shining Path terrorist group and with robust economic growth, but equally steadfast opposition from those who associate her father with corruption and human rights abuses and who fear that her first act as president would be to issue her father a pardon for his crimes. Her presidency would undoubtedly be marred by controversy and questions about the strength and impartiality of the judicial system; if her father is given a pardon, for example, even legally, it would be seen as her interfering in a very controversial judicial process.

Peru's presidential candidate Pedro Pablo Kuczynski  talks to the press after a meeting with school principals at Independencia district of Lima, Peru, March 29, 2016.
Peru's presidential candidate Pedro Pablo Kuczynski talks to the press after a meeting with school principals at Independencia district of Lima, Peru, March 29, 2016.
Mariana Bazo / Reuters
Victory for PPK would be problematic for other reasons. His eponymous political party is little but a personal platform and has no substantive presence in the legislature. Although he is undoubtedly a skillful political operator, he will thus face the same roadblocks in Congress that the current (and admittedly unpopular) president, Ollanta Humala, has had to deal with. As a result, Humala has made little progress on his plans to tackle social inequity in particular and has gone through seven prime ministers in his five years in office. With social discontent never too far from the surface, Peru cannot afford another five years of political stagnation.

However the race ends, it has already exposed cracks in the positive façade that Peru has tried to present to the outside world. In particular, the JNE’s intervention raises the specter of political capture of the judiciary. After all, if the JNE genuinely sought to apply the law fairly, critics state, the same sanctions would have to be placed on almost every contender in the presidential race, including Fujimori and PPK, who have both faced similar charges to those of Acuña.

Peruvian presidential candidate Keiko Fujimori greets supporters during a campaign rally in Lima, March 18, 2016.
Peruvian presidential candidate Keiko Fujimori greets supporters during a campaign rally in Lima, March 18, 2016.
Janine Costa / Reuters
The JNE could be playing a dangerous game, especially given recent events in other parts of Latin America, where episodes of corruption, popular discontent with harder economic times, and the perceived ineptitude or avarice of politicians has caused upheaval—witness President Dilma Rousseff’s travails in Brazil or the ouster of former President Otto Pérez Molina in Guatemala. Peru has not yet reached such a tipping point, but broad distrust of officials and institutions is long-standing and growing deeper. Polls consistently show that corruption and the infiltration of the political system by organized crime rank highly among public concerns.

The election also adds to the sense that Peru’s economy—still prosperous—could be facing harder times. Almost all the presidential candidates espouse liberal economic policies to attract foreign investors, a recipe that has brought Peru substantial economic success over the past 15 years. But economic growth has not been accompanied by the development of a more mature, party-based political system; nor has it bred the institutions that will be required to support more sustainable, long-term growth, such as a fully independent and competent judiciary, a strong anti-corruption framework and formal mechanisms for managing social grievances. The country’s growing pains will be much more difficult to manage if weak national parties, disconnect between regional and national priorities, and influence-trafficking and corruption continue to hold sway.

The next few days may see answers to some of the immediate questions still hanging over the Peruvian elections: who, finally, will be able to stand in the first round and who, therefore, is likely to face Fujimori in a subsequent second-round runoff. But in the long term, Peru cannot afford to ignore the poor quality of its institutions; a little hard work now will enable this Latin American success story to aim even higher.