Peru’s Big Surprise

Peru’s June 6 election was a big surprise containing a multitude of smaller surprises.

The biggest surprise was that Pedro Castillo, rural teacher and union leader, won the election with 50.1 percent, defeating Keiko Fujimori, three-time presidential candidate and daughter of imprisoned former president, Alberto Fujimori, who won 49.9 percent of the valid votes cast.

This is the culmination of several earlier surprises.

First, Castillo, virtually unknown in Lima, won the first round on April 14. He placed first with 19 percent, up from 2 percent of voter intentions in the polls in January and February to 4 percent in March and 7 percent in early April. Only a deeply fractured polity, with voters desperate for alternatives, could produce such an outcome. Despite social media, Peru is not yet a nation where public opinion resonates smoothly across the coast, highlands, and jungle.

Second, polls published immediately after first round showed Castillo with a huge lead, with roughly double voter intentions of runner up Keiko Fujimori. This revealed a potentially large pool of voters receptive to Castillo’s message of “no more poor in a rich country.” It also revealed the depth of hostility toward Keiko Fujimori, who faces numerous charges of corruption and is widely blamed for the obstructionism that dogged recent administrations.

Third, Castillo maintained his share of popular support (at roughly 40 percent), despite a viciously racist, often mendacious, and rhetorically violent campaign aimed at stigmatizing him as a communist, a terrorist, and an ignoramus. Even a massacre in the jungle perpetrated, apparently, by remnants of the Shining Path linked to drug-trafficking, had little effect on Castillo’s popularity. The Peruvian media’s disgracefully biased role had little effect outside urban areas.

Fourth, Castillo does not represent a renovated, moderated, socially-progressive, intellectually respectable left but an older more traditional class-struggle oriented left. His campaign is the spontaneous and direct—indeed, largely disorganized and chaotic—expression of rural poverty, abandonment, and neglect. The program of his party, Peru Libre, was written by former regional governor, Vladimir Cerrón, and is redolent of the radical left from the 1970s and 1980s.

Fifth, Castillo’s victory is a defeat for Peru’s 1993 Constitution, which was drafted following a self-coup by then President Alberto Fujimori. In April 1992, Fujimori closed the congress and suspended the constitution before convening a constituent congress to write a new Magna Carta. Castillo promises a referendum on whether to convene another constituent assembly to draft a yet another constitution.

Sixth, the proposal to change the constitution aims to challenge the neoliberal economic model that Peru has followed since the 1990s. This model led to rapid economic growth, especially during the commodity boom, and this lifted millions out of poverty especially in the urban areas. But the pandemic has been a blow to neoliberalism because revenue from the boom was not sufficiently reinvested in health care, education, and social welfare. Peru never adopted the kinds of radical reforms implemented in Venezuela, Ecuador, and Bolivia, and polls suggest they want moderate rather than radical changes. With Chile, the region’s neoliberal standard-bearer, rewriting its constitution, however, Peruvians may be willing to follow suit.

That said, for many Peruvians, and international community, the election is more than a surprise—it is a shock. There will be chaos and ungovernability. Castillo has never held public office and most of his entourage are neophytes. He lacks a majority in congress, and much of what he has promised will be difficult or impossible to achieve. To top it off, Peru is in the throes of a pandemic that has cost 180,000 lives, one of the worst outcomes, per capita, in the world.

Worse still, taking a page from the Trump “stop the steal” campaign, Keiko Fujimori has refused to accept the result, making baseless allegations of fraud, and challenging the result in the tribunals.

But it is also important to recognize that the election of Castillo represents a process of democratization of Peruvian society, and that this was made possible by a functioning electoral democracy. Now all actors must respect the outcome.