Peru: time to break the pattern?
Pedro Castillo was inaugurated as Peru’s leftist new president on 28 July, having won the 6 June run-off vote by a razor-thin margin. But in Peru, winning an election is not the same as being able to govern; Castillo’s recent predecessors did not last very long. The election was a highly polarised affair and the losing candidate continues to claim fraud. The new government faces severe social, economic and institutional challenges, and an opposition that will pounce on any opportunity to impeach the president. Castillo will have to defuse polarisation and build consensus while satisfying the demands for change that people have repeatedly expressed in the polls and on the streets.
As the first round of Peru’s presidential election approached, people increasingly referred to the vote as a ‘lottery’. Voter preferences were so fragmented that anything could happen.
When Peruvians went to the polls on 11 April, Perú Libre (Free Peru) candidate Pedro Castillo came first, but with a meagre 18.9 per cent of the vote. Behind him was Keiko Fujimori of the right-wing Fuerza Popular (Popular Force) party on 13.4 per cent. Among those missing out on a run-off spot were the candidates of Renovación Popular and Avanza País, who each pushed Fujimori hard on 11.7 and 11.66 points respectively. The two candidates heading to the run-off had less than a third of the votes between them, but the choice on offer couldn’t have been more polarising.
A politically volatile context
The election took place in a country experiencing one of the most devastating COVID-19 experiences, and in a highly volatile political context, with four presidents in five years.
First was Pedro Kuczynski, elected in 2016 and out two years later amid a scandal that saw him end up under house arrest while being investigated for money laundering. The vice-president who succeeded him, Martín Vizcarra, twice faced impeachment proceedings for ‘moral incapacity’ and his inability to tackle the COVID-19 pandemic, with the second attempt successful. This came despite mass protests against the impeachment of a president who had positioned himself as an anti-corruption figure; protesters denounced the impeachment as a self-interested political manoeuvre by an establishment that had no interest in having its corruption exposed.
The president of Congress, Manuel Merino, followed Vizcarra and immediately formed a hardcore right-wing government, despite having no mandate to do so, but only lasted five days. He was forced to resign after his harsh repression of the protests against Vizcarra’s impeachment left two people dead.
Enter accidental president Francisco Sagasti, an engineer and academic elected to Congress in early 2020, who had no sooner been chosen by his fellow legislators to succeed Merino as leader of Congress when he substituted for him a second time as president. He would be the one to conclude, in July 2021, the presidential term Kuczynski had inaugurated five years earlier.
The economy was in no better shape than the political system. Pandemic lockdowns in place between March and June 2020 had a devastating effect on economic activity; the National Institute of Statistics and Informatics reported that the country’s GDP had experienced its biggest setback in 30 years, shrinking by 11.1 per cent in 2020.
With discontent running high and most people unable to invest their hopes in any single political platform, voter choices remained highly fragmented. There were many fishers trying to catch something in the troubled waters of Peruvian politics.
This was reflected in the results of the parliamentary elections held in January, which saw 10 parties win seats, and none of them come close to a working majority. Castillo’s party claimed 37 out of 130 congressional seats; the next most represented, with only 24 seats, was its arch-rival party led by Fujimori.
Formerly a teacher, Pedro Castillo was a leftist populist outsider who a few years before led a strike against budget cuts; he was the embodiment of growing popular rejection of conventional politics. Keiko Fujimori, on the other hand, was a Peruvian household name, the daughter of jailed former president Alberto Fujimori. Her father was initially elected in free and fair elections but went on to build a dictatorship and stayed in power for a decade.
The heir to this powerful political dynasty, Fujimori was a former congress member and the runner-up in the 2011 and 2016 presidential elections. From being a potential president she became a prisoner, detained on accusations of corruption, money laundering, organised crime and obstruction of justice. She was released due to the COVID-19 outbreak, and in her case, winning the presidency would have carried the additional perk of immunity from prosecution while in office; when Castillo was eventually sworn in, the judicial case against her started moving again.
Castillo’s humble peasant origins made him a magnet for voters in rural areas, speaking to impoverished people’s aspirations of social change, while Fujimori, clearly a member of the conservative elite, gathered disproportionate support in relatively affluent urban settings.
If there was one thing the two could agree on, however, it was their social conservativism: both reject gender politics and sexual and reproductive rights, strongly opposing abortion and progress in LGBTQI+ rights.
As the campaign moved towards the presidential run-off vote, Castillo’s lead over Fujimori narrowed. Ahead of voting day, polls suggested a technical draw: either side might prevail.
Pre-election tensions were compounded by violence. On 23 May, a terrorist attack in central Peru, which both presidential candidates condemned, killed 16 people, including four children. Remnants of the Maoist Shining Path guerrilla group claimed the attack, leaving pamphlets at the scene urging people not to vote.
VOICES FROM THE FRONTLINE
Iván Lanegra is secretary general of Transparency Civil Association, an independent civil society organisation that works to improve the quality of democracy and political representation. In a polarised campaign, his organisation worked to educate voters and observe the election.
In the run-up to the election, as part of the #DecideBien (#ChooseWell) campaign, Transparency disseminated systematic information about the parties, their candidates and their proposals, so that citizens could assess their options. We broke down the parties’ policy programmes so that each person could learn about and compare the proposals of each candidate on the issues that interested them, and vote on the basis on that knowledge.
In addition, we invited citizens to register with the National Transparency Volunteer Network to become election observers. From our perspective, election observation consists of monitoring, providing guidance and bearing witness to the events that take place during election day, as well as educating citizens about electoral conduct and rules.
With this network of volunteers, Transparency observed the election process and from the outset we noted that the electoral process had been conducted normally, with only the kind of minor incidents that tend to occur in all elections, but which do not affect the results. In view of the unfounded allegations that were made in an attempt to discredit the process, we also worked to counter electoral disinformation.
It is necessary to restore trust in elections. To this end, we must continue to educate and inform citizens about the rules of elections, politics and democracy. We must also improve the mechanisms available to us for combatting disinformation. It is also necessary to move electoral reforms forward, in order to create incentives for the strengthening of political parties, as well as to improve the quality of political representation.
This is an edited extract of our interview with Iván Lanegra. Read the full interview here.
Fujimori plays the Trump card
6 June came and went without yielding a clear winner, although Castillo changed his job title on his Twitter profile to ‘president-elect’. With all votes tallied, Castillo barely passed the 50 per cent mark and a flood of appeals immediately followed. As Inauguration Day approached, a president-elect was still to be officially declared.
Borrowing from the Trump playbook, the Fujimori campaign sought to discredit the election with unsubstantiated fraud claims. All international observers described the election as fair and stated that they had not found evidence of serious irregularities. But Fujimori’s party hired expensive lawyers to try to discard votes in poor districts that had largely supported Castillo, while retired military leaders urged the armed forces not to recognise Castillo as president, emboldening the far right. Electoral authorities decided not to declare a winner until they had reviewed all contested voting records and ruled on every annulment request. A long wait ensued.
The wait was filled with protests. Over June and July, tensions increased as supporters of both candidates held protests in Lima. Thousands of Castillo supporters travelled to the capital, often from remote rural areas, and hundreds of them camped for more than a month outside the electoral court, awaiting the official election results. Fujimori voters also rallied in their thousands, supporting their candidate’s electoral fraud claims. Some threatened election officials, including the head of the National Office of Electoral Processes, staging sit-ins outside his residence, hurling insults and demanding he hand over the electoral roll.
Rival protests were often held at the same time, a few blocks apart. On 26 June, for instance, Castillo supporters marched on the headquarters of the electoral court to demand confirmation of victory, while pro-Fujimori protesters rallied close by making allegations of electoral fraud and denouncing ‘communism’.
Media in the firing line
Amid polarisation, the media were in the firing line. Journalists covering the run-off election and the subsequent wait for final results faced hostility while reporting on protests. The National Journalists’ Association (ANP) documented 71 attacks against journalists covering the elections between January and July 2021.
Attacks came from both sides. Although the Fujimori camp was responsible for the bulk of the hostility, unleashing online harassment and corporate pressure alongside street protest, Castillo supporters were not blameless. On 19 May, Castillo supporters in Ayacucho assaulted a reporter and a camera operator after Castillo suggested that journalists were bribed to produce biased coverage. On 16 June, the Association of the Foreign Press in Peru condemned harassment and smear campaigns against some of its members by Castillo voters.
On 8 June, the ANP reported that over 10 staff of América Televisión and Canal N had been forced to resign, reportedly for refusing to give in to company pressure to produce pro-Fujimori coverage. On 11 June, Fujimori supporters called on people to organise a protest against ‘the lying press’ outside the home of the director of La República newspaper.
According to OjoPúblico, an independent online news outlet, Fujimori supporters pursued a campaign to disclose the phone numbers and addresses of politicians, activists, journalists and other public figures who criticised their candidate. They shared photographs of their targets along with the message ‘Let’s make them leave the country’. Some of these campaigns and attacks were linked to a far-right group known as ‘The Resistance’. On 14 July, at least six media workers covering pro-Fujimori protests in Lima were attacked by members of this group.
After six weeks of uncertainty and hostility, on 19 July Castillo was confirmed as president. The final tally was 50.1 per cent versus 49.9 per cent, with a margin of only 44,000 votes. Fujimori conceded but continued to claim fraud, essentially accepting the official result but refusing to recognise the legitimacy of the new president, who took office on 28 July.
Castillo faces high expectations but has little room to manoeuvre. While internal conflict flourished, the country continued to face urgent financial challenges, including rising inflation and a depreciating currency. In a country that holds the dubious distinction of having had the world’s highest COVID-19 death rate per capita, people will expect significant improvements in the dire social conditions that were made so much worse by the pandemic.
Castillo voters will want to see serious action on the corruption that thrived during the pandemic and in the years before, an effort to redistribute wealth and a shift away from the extractivist model that exposes Indigenous and environmental human rights defenders to lethal risk.
Like the USA, where Donald Trump may be out of power but Trumpism remains alive, Fujimorism in Peru is anything but a passing fad. The polarisation that Fujimori stoked in this campaign, promoting hate and fear, will linger for a long time to come. Once doubts have been successfully sowed among one half of voters over the legitimacy of the political choice made by the other half, there seems no easy path to trust and consensus. In this context, any misstep by Castillo could be expected to provide the pretext for an impeachment attempt.
Castillo started his presidency with calls for national unity, insisting that he and his followers were not communists or extremists, much less terrorists. On the campaign trail, he had put forward a plan to make mining companies hand over up to 80 per cent of their profits, or otherwise risk nationalisation. Once sworn in, he took a more moderate approach, although he continued to insist that a tax on mining profits should be implemented to help pay for better public healthcare and education. In August the government started talks with mining companies, many of which are multinational corporations, to try to win agreement on improving labour rights and community relations, increasing tax revenue and enhancing environmental regulations.
By taking a more moderate line, Castillo may placate some business leaders and Fujimori supporters, but risks alienating his supporters. The mining sector accounts for 60 per cent of the country’s revenue and Castillo drew significant support from people in mining areas.
This attempt at a balancing act was reflected in the composition of his cabinet. Controversy arose over Castillo’s first choice of prime minister, self-defined Marxist Guido Bellido. Bellido quit after only two months, and his successor, Mirtha Vasquez, projects a more moderate image. She is well known for her activism for women’s rights and for Indigenous and environmental rights: as a lawyer, she represented criminalised Indigenous leader Máxima Acuña in her struggle against a large mining company. Her rhetoric might be softer than her predecessor’s, but extractive companies should not expect her to be a soft touch.
But that was not how some in Castillo’s party saw it. As the reshuffle was announced, the party speaker refused to give the cabinet a vote of confidence on the grounds that it represented a shift towards the ‘centre-right’. A statement by party leaders claimed that the new cabinet was made up of ‘unregistered parties, supported by US NGOs, who have co-governed with the last four governments’. Perú Libre leaders also challenged cabinet members who, although members of the party, it claimed had accepted their appointments out of an ‘individualistic’ act rather than on behalf of the political group.
As he marked his distance from the government, the party speaker called on Perú Libre’s congressional representatives to ‘reorganise the party bench’ and remain vigilant to the possibility of betrayal. Thirteen of Perú Libre’s 37 legislators are members of the teachers’ union, founded by Castillo, which is undergoing registration procedures aimed at potentially becoming a separate political movement. Further fragmentation may be in prospect.
Meanwhile opponents on the right continue to join forces with business leaders to accuse the president of being too left-leaning and ill-equipped to make complex economic decisions. Castillo will need all the political intelligence he can muster to avoid ending up like so many of his predecessors: overthrown, imprisoned, or both.
OUR CALLS FOR ACTION
Peruvian civil society should work collectively to help rebuild social trust and overcome the polarisation that thrived during the election period.
Extractive companies that operate in Peru must work with the new government to improve their standards in respecting labour rights and environmental regulations, and in expanding the tax base.
Opposition politicians must respect the final results of the election and refrain from launching spurious impeachment proceedings.
Cover photo by Angela Ponce/Getty Images