Argument

An expert's point of view on a current event.

Peru’s New President Will Polarize the Country

Peruvians may gamble on a leftist political unknown or bring a controversial right-wing politician into office.

By , a doctoral candidate in politics at Princeton University and a Central America research fellow at the Washington Office on Latin America, and , a doctoral candidate in politics at the New School.
Peruvian presidential candidate Pedro Castillo delivers a speech to supporters from a balcony at his campaign headquarters during his closing rally in Lima on June 3, ahead of the June 6 runoff election against Keiko Fujimori.
Peruvian presidential candidate Pedro Castillo delivers a speech to supporters from a balcony at his campaign headquarters during his closing rally in Lima on June 3, ahead of the June 6 runoff election against Keiko Fujimori. LUKA GONZALES/AFP via Getty Images

Over the last few years in several South American countries, general elections have come to follow an unfortunate script. Voters are asked to choose which presidential candidate they fear the least, not which they believe in the most.

Several forces explain this trend: the collapse of long-standing political parties, revelations of vast corruption networks that have brought down public officials in almost every nation, and COVID-19’s decimation of public services and the informal economy. If there’s one country where all these forces converge, it’s Peru.

Over the last few years in several South American countries, general elections have come to follow an unfortunate script. Voters are asked to choose which presidential candidate they fear the least, not which they believe in the most.

Several forces explain this trend: the collapse of long-standing political parties, revelations of vast corruption networks that have brought down public officials in almost every nation, and COVID-19’s decimation of public services and the informal economy. If there’s one country where all these forces converge, it’s Peru.

On June 6, Peruvians will elect a new president. The two contenders are the victors of a first-round election held on April 11. Leftist nationalist Pedro Castillo—a political outsider from a modest economic background—came in first with just under 19 percent of votes. Castillo draws much support from poorer Peruvians living far from Lima, the capital, who feel neglected by the state and left behind by the natural resource-fueled growth streak that has swept Peru in the past two decades.

Coming in next was right-wing political insider Keiko Fujimori—the daughter of Peru’s last dictator, former President Alberto Fujimori. She draws support from an upper- and middle-class base that favors sustaining the free market model set up by her father and fears Castillo’s socialist leanings. Although Fujimori won 13.4 percent of the vote, the second-place finisher was technically “no one” since so many Peruvians spoiled their ballots by leaving their choice for president blank.

After the first-round vote, Castillo maintained a significant lead over Fujimori in the polls. His small base was buoyed by the begrudging support of many Peruvians who feared the Fujimori family’s return to office would mean the end of democracy in Peru. In the weeks since—in part from Fujimori’s mudslinging and as a result of Castillo’s incoherence on his policy plans—that lead has diminished. The most recent poll by El Comercio-Ipsos forecasts 51.1 percent of votes will go for Castillo versus 48.9 percent of votes for Fujimori, although undercounted rural voters could give Castillo the upper hand. Whichever candidate wins at the polls will begin their term facing an already strong backlash to their leadership.

Whichever candidate wins at the polls will begin their term facing an already strong backlash to their leadership.

Peru, now verified to have the world’s highest COVID-19 death rate, is desperately in need of common ground. Managing the fallout of the pandemic, shrinking the gap between the rich and poor, and fighting endemic corruption all require competent leadership. Unfortunately, neither candidate is well-positioned to take on these tasks: Castillo’s inexperience and Fujimori’s history of corruption and abuse of power each pose their own threats to responsive policy change in Peru.

Castillo hails from the Perú Libre (Free Peru) party, a self-described Marxist party that wants to jettison the free market economic model set up by strongman Alberto Fujimori and kept intact by his democratic successors. The cornerstone of his platform is a new constitution, which would replace Peru’s 1993 charter written under Fujimori’s dictatorship. As in neighboring Chile, many see the current constitution as a dysfunctional holdover from an earlier undemocratic era, making the idea of replacement broadly popular. In late 2020, 56 percent of Peruvians supported the idea. Castillo recently announced that, if elected, he would hold a vote for citizens to choose a constitutional assembly within his first 100 days in office. But the rest is uncertain, raising questions about guarantees that the constitution-writing process would proceed along democratic lines. Cryptically, Castillo says he favors an assembly composed of grassroots organizations and workers’ representatives, where formally organized political parties would only be allowed to hold 40 percent of seats.

Castillo’s party also wants to drastically alter the economy. Peru Libre leaders want to nationalize the country’s primary mining, gas, and oil industries—or at least renegotiate the lax terms multinational companies currently operate in Peru with. Such a shift would significantly restructure Peru’s economy, where mineral and gas commodities represent close to 52 percent of total exports and have helped Peru achieve among Latin America’s highest and most stable economic growth rates in the past two decades.

It is also far from certain whether Castillo would respect democratic checks and balances. Castillo previously voiced support for restrictions on free press and shutting down Congress if it blocks the new constitution. Since making it to the second round, he has moderated his tone. Rather than nationalizing Peru’s mines, he seems to prefer a renegotiation of contracts to keep more revenue in Peru. He also promised a cabinet “without ties to extremists.” But Castillo’s shift to the center is likely to be constrained by the radical leftist founder of Castillo’s party, Vladimir Cerrón, who continues to praise Venezuela’s President Nicolás Maduro. Many fear given Cerrón’s iron grip over the party, he could control Castillo from behind the scenes.

Many Peruvians have found these aspects of Castillo’s wild-card candidacy sufficiently alarming to warrant voting against him. But Fujimori’s past is viewed by many as even more concerning. She served as a presidential advisor during her father’s autocratic presidency, which looted an estimated $1.5 billion to $4 billion from state coffers. When her father was ousted by mass protests and a democratic transition ensued, the younger Fujimori reinvented herself as leader of the pro-market, socially conservative Popular Force party, which she built into a powerful political machine, allegedly through money laundering. After narrowly losing two presidential races in 2011 and 2016, she led her party to a majority in Congress, which it used to topple a succession of centrist presidents, some linked to corruption scandals, and derail promising anti-corruption reforms. In March, prosecutors asked for 30-year bribery sentences for virtually the entire top leadership of Popular Force, including Fujimori, who is herself currently out on bail after being jailed during money laundering allegation investigations.

More than programmatic policies, Fujimori’s central campaign message has been she will defend Peru from “communism” and a Venezuela-style dictatorship, which she claims Castillo would set up if elected. For Peruvians, that fear is visceral, and evidence of Venezuela’s implosion is everywhere; the country received 1.2 million Venezuelan migrants and refugees in recent years, more than any other South American country besides Colombia.

Fujimori promises to create new jobs and keep free market policies in place. Although Fujimori said her 82-year-old father would not become a government official, she has also referred to him as a trusted advisor. Fujimori has also dug in her heels on promises to pardon his 25-year prison sentence for crimes against human rights. She could maneuver to absolve her fellow party leaders of charges linking them to organized crime and clip the wings of the prosecutors on her own case. On social issues, Fujimori promises a tough approach on crime and opposition to LGBTQ rights—a nod to hard-line evangelicals among her base. Meanwhile, her platform devotes less than two pages to political reforms, only mentioning plans to make it more challenging for Congress to impeach presidents and vote down government cabinets—changes which, as president, could play into her hands in less than democratic ways.

For all their differences, either candidate will face a similar challenge if elected: a fragmented Congress. Although Peru’s mostly weak political parties do not mobilize voters in large numbers, they do matter for a president’s survival. The constitution makes it easy for Congress to impeach presidents, even on the ill-defined grounds of “moral incapacity.” These rules, combined with the fragmented political landscape, help explain why the country has cycled through four presidents since 2017. A new round of executive-legislative clashes could be just around the corner.

Castillo would be particularly isolated. Although Peru Libre won a plurality of 37 seats in April’s legislative election, potential allies are few and far between in Peru’s right-wing-dominated Congress, and even Peru Libre representatives have threatened to abandon Castillo if he backtracks on his party’s promises. The leftist Juntos por el Perú party and the center-right Somos Perú party tepidly endorsed Castillo in the presidential runoff—but did so mostly out of fear of the Fujimori family, meaning their support for Castillo once in office is far from guaranteed. A handful of parties, including the influential Acción Popular party and the smaller Podemos Perú and Partido Morado, said they would not support either candidate. Under Castillo, political instability—and policy standstill—is a virtual guarantee.

If Venezuela is the obvious political nightmare South Americans have rightly learned to fear, Peru is the subtle political unraveling they are much more likely to experience.

Fujimori might have a somewhat easier time building consensus. Although her own party holds only 24 seats, several conservative parties, including Alianza para el Progreso, Renovación Popular, and Avanza País, endorsed her campaign. But rather than representing wholehearted converts, these center-right forces only opted for Fujimori to avoid a leftist in office. Fujimori may also be expected to buy off would-be critics, further weakening Peru’s rule of law.

Peru’s current impasse is unfortunate in its own right, but it should also serve as a warning for the rest of Latin America. The issues that brought Peru to the brink are also starting to surface in almost all of the region’s democracies: weak political parties, often in the pockets of big businesses both legal and illicit; anemic public services that leave the young and poor out in the cold; and politicians who are constantly investigated, but almost never sentenced, for corruption. If Venezuela is the obvious political nightmare South Americans have rightly learned to fear, Peru is the subtle political unraveling they are much more likely to experience.

Will Freeman is a doctoral candidate in politics at Princeton University. Twitter: @WillGFreeman

Lucas Perelló is a doctoral candidate in politics at the New School.