The elections in Peru, which were held on April 10, are a stern lesson in Latin American politics and its complexities. Consider the following: Peru’s conservative president since 2006, Alán García, has been wildly successful at growing his country economically, especially during a time of a worldwide economic downturn. But in Latin America, that’s apparently not enough for electoral success.

President Obama acknowledged the Peruvian miracle almost a year ago. “Peru I think has been an extraordinary success story over the last several years,” Obama said in remarks delivered from the Oval Office with García on June 1, 2010. “We’ve seen not only the solidification of a thriving democracy, but also an extraordinary economic success story. And even last year in the midst of a very tough global recession, we saw that Peru was able to remain resilient. And I think that’s a testimony to the President’s leadership on this front.”

Obama was correct. Peru nearly collapsed under crushing poverty and brutal narcoterrorism, but it is now one of Latin America’s fastest growing economies. Since García’s election in 2006, Peru’s economy has averaged 7 percent annual growth, defying the global recession (it had been averaging 5 percent for the five years prior to his election); the percentage of Peruvians living in poverty dropped from 49 percent in 2004 to 35 percent in 2009; and Peru moved up 24 places in the U.N.’s Human Development Report between 2005 and 2010, and has now passed Venezuela.

García cannot take all the credit, though: A boom in the global prices of Peruvian mineral exports (silver, zinc, copper, and gold) has helped, as have policies of fiscal austerity, free trade, price stability, infrastructure development, and courting foreign investment that, while refined under García, actually date all the way back to the 1990s autocratic regime of Alberto Fujimori, who is now serving a 25-year prison sentence for human rights abuses.

García also inaugurated the 10,000th kilometer of national highway in Peru on April 5, which has enabled remote farmers to bring their vegetables to new markets and even port towns.

One might think that García would be able to anoint his successor à la Alvaro Uribe in Colombia (Juan Manuel Santos) or Lula da Silva in Brazil (Dilma Roussef). But not in Peru. García’s APRA party does not even have a candidate running, and the front runner is García’s political opponent from the previous election in 2006 – Ollanta Humala, a chavista.

Though Humala is now trying to present himself as a moderate, he was very much Chávez’s boy in 2006 – so much so, in fact, that Chávez threatened to cut off diplomatic relations if García beat Humala, which is what happened (though the diplomats remained in place). Most Peruvians remain skeptical of Humala’s claims of moderation, but he is certainly helped by the division and bickering between the three moderates in the race: former president Alejandro Toledo, former prime minister (and septuagenarian) Pedro Pablo Kuczynski, and former Lima mayor Luís Castañeda.

Still, how could a populist leftist like Humala be resurgent in this “golden cycle”? In short, Peru still has problems.

Crime is skyrocketing. According to the Lima-based NGO Ciudad Nuestra, the murder rate tripled in the six years between 2002 and 2008, spurned by that now-familiar mixture of a growth in cocaine exports (that puts more money and weapons on the streets) and weak or inept local governance.

Then there is the (not entirely unfounded) suspicion that this economic boom has benefitted a familiar few more than the rest. That alone has been known to topple more than one government – and it’s lent support from Peruvians to Humala. Indeed a recent study showed that while the perception of distributive justice has improved during García’s presidency from 8 percent in 2007 to 14 percent in 2010, it is still well below the South American average of 21 percent – though it’s still above the Dominican Republic, Chile and Argentina, the region’s most unequal countries.

Keiko Fujimori (running for the Fuerza 2011 party) has little more than name recognition going for her (she is Alberto’s daughter) but that may well be enough for some. Indeed, many of Peru’s poorer and indigenous populations thought Fujimori got a raw deal when the criminal sentences started pouring out in 2007. After all, they credit him with bringing Peru back from the brink of economic and political collapse under the constant terrorist attacks by the Shining Path and the Tupac Amaru that killed hundreds of thousands. For them, their lives improved more visibly and dramatically under Fujimori than under García’s GDP growth, infrastructure improvements, and free trade deals with South Korea and Mexico.

To the great chagrin of Peru, the Andean region and Peru’s international partners, the latest Ipsos Apoyo poll gives Ollanta Humala 28 percent of the vote and Keiko Fujimori 21 percent of the vote – meaning that the Peruvian electorate is likely to face this grim choice in the run-off election on June 5.

The lesson, in short, from Peru’s election: In Latin America, the right governance and social welfare programs trump economic success.

Vanessa Neumann is editor-at-large of Diplomat magazine and a commentator on Latin American politics for Caracol radio.

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