This piece has been updated
National champion goalkeeper. Entrepreneur. Reality TV contestant. Tabloid fixture. Mayor.
At 38, George Forsyth is known for a lot of things. Is president of Peru next on the list?
The election isn’t until next April, but if polls could predict the future, the answer would be yes. The retired soccer star, who won four national titles and played on teams in Germany and Italy, has been leading the IPSOS poll for the past four straight months. Another poll from April had him as the only major political figure with a net positive image – by a wide margin.
Forsyth entered politics in 2010 as a councilman for Lima’s populous La Victoria municipality. But since his election in 2018 as La Victoria’s mayor – with over double the votes of his opponents – his political profile has grown nationally.
“He has a good chance,” said Dr. Paula Muñoz, a professor of political science at Lima’s Universidad del Pacífico. Amidst a political crisis that has paralyzed the national government and a pandemic that has given Peru Latin America’s worst per capita death rate, the conditions could favor someone like Forsyth, Muñoz told AQ.
La Victoria is a district of over 200,000 people known for its bustling commerce and where the previous mayor left under corruption allegations. A self-described centrist, Forsyth has focused on local issues like crime, but his views on big economic issues are less clear. As mayor he’s taken a tough-on-crime approach with the district’s many informal street vendors, who clash with residents and formal businesses. He has also targeted the criminal rings that extort the vendors – one such ring allegedly led by the very mayor Forsyth replaced.
Forsyth’s messaging has often gone beyond rhetoric. Minutes before his swearing in as mayor, Forsyth pulled down La Victoria’s municipal flag and washed it – a sign, his office said, of his administration’s mission to wipe out corruption. Forsyth can frequently be seen wearing a bulletproof vest when in public, which he has said is due to daily threats.
His policies may be working. Reported crime fell significantly in Forsyth’s first year as mayor, but observers say it’s too early to know if this reflects a long-term change. Still, Forsyth’s approach could be attractive to voters elsewhere.
The problems facing La Victoria, after all, aren’t unique to the district, which Merybet Morales Espino, a political analyst who lives there, refers to as a “mini Peru.” An IPSOS poll in July found that corruption and crime were the first and third issues of greatest concern for Peruvians, respectively.
“Forsyth appeals to a sense of public order and respect for the law,” said Arturo Zuñiga, a political science student at the Pontifical Catholic University of Peru.
Forsyth, whose office didn’t respond to requests for an interview, hasn’t confirmed his presidential candidacy. Still, he has openly flirted with the possibility, suggesting he’d create his own party to run on.
“It would be a lot more interesting to create something totally new, that’s not contaminated, let’s say, by old ways of doing things,” Forsyth said in a TV interview back in January. “We have to refresh Peruvian politics.”
Not Quite an Outsider
Measuring at 6’2”, the mayor with nicknames like “Ken” and “Gringo” doesn’t blend in in La Victoria. But Forsyth, who moved to La Victoria as a teenager, is just “a guy from the neighborhood,” he said in one interview, who has “never considered himself a politician.”
But Forsyth has indeed been a politician for a decade, and he has political roots, too. He was born in Caracas, Venezuela, to a diplomat father – who later served in congress and as Peru’s ambassador to the United States and China – and to a mother who was a former Miss Chile. But despite his privileged upbringing, Forsyth’s decorated career as a goalkeeper for Alianza Lima, one of Peru’s principal clubs, earned him recognition and admiration in working-class La Victoria, where the team’s stadium is located.
“Alianza Lima exposed Forsyth to common people,” said Muñoz. “It brought him closer to knowing that world.”
Forsyth continued to play professional soccer after entering politics as a councilman for La Victoria in 2010. In 2014, his political career got a boost when the then-mayor ran for higher office, promoting Forsyth to interim mayor for several weeks. Forsyth retired from soccer ahead of his 2018 mayoral run, but he kept sports central to his image when in 2019 he moved the mayor’s office to an abandoned sports complex in a poor part of La Victoria.
Aside from his career in local politics, Forsyth has maintained a national profile participating in shows like Peru’s versions of Dancing with the Stars and, recently, The Masked Singer. He prefaced his mayoral run in 2018 with a whirlwind romance and marriage to the actress Vanessa Terkes, which garnered significant media attention. The relationship ended months later with accusations that Forsyth psychologically abused Terkes, which he denied. So far, the scandal has not dampened his presidential prospects.
Playing the Center
So far, Forsyth’s time in government offers some, but not many, clues as to what kind of president he would be.
“His measures to combat problems like informality have been clearly pro-business, or at least pro-formal business,” said Zuñiga, who is writing a thesis on public policy toward La Victoria’s informal economy. “He has had the support of the government, the police and businesspeople.”
“He’s a pro-business guy,” echoed Muñoz. “He’s not anti-market, but we don’t know anything about his political positions.”
Forsyth eschews labels of “right” and “left”, and speaks positively about the center. Experts AQ spoke with say he doesn’t have a clear ideology.
Given the district’s size and role as a point of commerce, the pandemic has made La Victoria a focal point in the government’s struggle to contain the coronavirus. This could give Forsyth more opportunities to connect with voters through increased media coverage. But Peru’s election is eight months away, and more established figures could gain momentum. A lot will depend on the party that Forsyth runs on – if he indeed does run.
Some are skeptical his name recognition will be enough to overcome what they see as a limited track record in government.
“My feeling is that he will fade over the next few months,” said José Carlos Requena, a political analyst and journalist. “But anything can happen in Peruvian politics.”
This piece was updated with details about Forsyth’s personal past
Tags: George Forsyth, La Victoria, Lima, Peru elections, Peruvian Politics