The first round of the Peruvian general elections was held on 11 April. The two winning candidates are Pedro Castillo of the left-wing Free Peru (Perú Libre) party and Keiko Fujimori of the right-wing Popular Force (Fuerza Popular). The radically different candidates could lead the country into opposite directions. “This is the vote of a country tired, depressed, frustrated and also fed up”, according to Peruvian political analyst Fernando Tuesta.
With 18 candidates, the highest number since the 2006 general election, this year’s plebiscite was always going to be interesting. The competing parties have varied wildly from the ultra-right, conservative Opus Dei to the more liberal, left-wing Together for Peru (Juntos por el Perú). The presidential election will determine the President and Vice President, while the Congressional elections will determine the composition of the Congress of Peru. All 130 seats of the unicameral Congress were contested, promising a complete change-up in Peruvian politics.
Pedro Castillo is currently in the lead, receiving the most votes in the first round of elections. He could join a series of leaders who have recently revitalised the ‘pink tide’ during the late 2010s and early 2020s. However, in close second lands Keiko Fujimori, who had previously narrowly lost the run-offs in the 2011 and 2016 elections. She has promised to follow in the footsteps of her father, Alberto Fujimori, who was president from 1990-2000 and is campaigning while on bail for corruption charges. Should she win, she would make history as Peru’s first female president and the second of east Asian descent, after her father.
Who are the candidates?
School-teacher Pedro Castillo gained fame as a leading figure in the 2017 teacher strike in Peru. Despite having socialist and populist left-wing views on government spending and foreign policy, he is socially right-wing. He opposes the legalisation of abortion, same-sex marriage and euthanasia, as well as the ‘gender-equality’ approach in education. His views are characteristic of all the candidates, with only Verónika Mendoza of Together for Peru supporting same-sex marriage and the legalisation of abortion. He supports rewriting the constitution to favour “ordinary Peruvians” instead of businesses, restructuring the pension system and nationalising the gas industry to help pay for investments in health care and education. During his campaign, he has promised to pardon ethnic nationalist Antauro Humala, an ethnocacerist, (nationalist activist) who was sentenced to 19 years in prison after leading the capture of a police station in Andahuaylas. He has also told supporters that if elected, the citizens of Peru would supervise his policies, he would only receive a teacher’s salary and would aim to reduce the pay for Congress and ministers by half. His surprising success caused the stock market in Peru to drop by 3.2% and the Peruvian sol’s value to drop by 1.7%. Much of his support comes from people fed up with the political class and endless scandals, says Jose Carlos Requena, a political analyst based in Lima. According to Requena, “this vote shows what a politically precarious time this is…even more than the voters on the left, Castillo won the anti-political, anti-establishment vote”. However, he has been accused of being linked to MOVADEF, a civilian branch of communist ‘terrorist’ party Shining Path.
Perhaps the most notorious candidate is Keiko Sofía Fujimori Higuchi. As daughter of Alberto Fujimori, she has previously held the position of First Lady from 1994 to 2000. Her party Popular Force represents ‘fujimorism’, a term coined after the authoritarian rule of her father. ‘Fujimoristas’ currently have the support of one third of the population, making them the strongest right-wing populist group in Latin America. Fujimori maintains popularity in government, being the most voted for congresswoman in the 2006 general elections, and the most voted for candidate in the first round of the 2015 presidential elections. She has been described as having right-wing populist, authoritarian and far-right political ideologies. She believes in running Peru with a “heavy hand” and that democracy “must be supported by a solid principle of authority”. She has promised to stop the pandemic lockdown and crack down on crime.
Since siding with her father in 1994 after her mother accused him of abuse and torture, Fujimori has followed in her father’s footsteps, assimilating her political brand to the ex-President currently serving a 25-year prison sentence on human rights abuse charges. She has been the subject of scandal, having been jailed three times in recent years over corruption and money laundering allegations. In March, a prosecutor sought a 30-year sentence for her on charges of money laundering.
In third place is Hernando De Soto, a 79-year-old radical free-market economist. He has come under fire for getting a COVID vaccination in the USA while simultaneously calling for Peru’s vaccination programme to be privatised. He was also the key adviser to Fujimori senior when he dissolved Congress and put troops on the streets in 1992. Other candidates include an ultra-conservative millionaire who has admitted to scourging himself in order to repress sexual desire: Rafael López Aliaga of Catholic group Opus Dei said in a recent interview that he represses sexual desire by thinking of the Virgin Mary and flailing himself with a cilice. He also opposes same-sex marriage and abortion even for underage rape victims. Young voters are disappointed by the abhorrent reputations of many candidates. A light in the dark could perhaps be in the form of Verónika Mendoza, although her socialist economic policies turn off some voters.
Corruption looms over the election
For a long time, corruption has been a major issue in Peru, coming to light recently during the Odebrecht scandal. Brazilian construction company Odebrecht was caught paying politicians to receive contracts for public works projects. Daniel Gallas described this scandal as having “discredited virtually the entire political elite of the country, as all major parties and players have been implicated”. This led to the suicide of Peru’s former president Alan García, an order of arrest for former president Alejandro Toledo and the first impeachment process against Pedro Pablo Kuczenski and his later resignation from the presidency. Two candidates in this year’s elections, Fujimori and Julio Guzman were also under investigation regarding alleged bribes from Odebrecht during their earlier electoral campaigns. In total, every elected leader but one since 1985 has either been impeached, imprisoned or sought in criminal investigations. This has led to a strong feeling of disillusionment among Peruvian voters, who lament a lack of appropriate candidates. One voter told AFP, “I don’t want to vote, because there is no suitable candidate, but I am more afraid of radicals entering the government”. Fujimori is also seen as part of the problem by many voters, as shown by a Datum poll from March where she received a 62% rejection rate. Around 28% of Peruvians would not choose any of the candidates.
The effect of COVID-19 and economic problems
Peru has also been one of the worst-affected nations in the Americas from the pandemic. ICU bed occupancy rose to 90% in January. Medical workers have been striking due to poor working conditions. However, many have still turned out to vote despite the high risk of infection, in order to avoid the 88 sol ($24) fine for not voting. Six of the 18 candidates, Castillo included, have contracted the virus. COVID has damaged the economy of Peru as well, with their GDP falling 30.2% in the second quarter of 2020, the largest decline out of all major economies. Many small-service businesses, which represent the majority of Peruvian businesses, have gone bankrupt. Medical experts have attributed such a severe outbreak partially due to the abysmal economic situation in Peru: one third of Peruvians live in overcrowded homes, 72% have informal jobs which require daily work and many need to travel daily in order to purchase food because only 49% of households own a refrigerator or freezer.
Voters must wait until June to finally decide their next leader, but with such disappointing candidates, it is difficult for many to feel optimistic about the outcome.