[WSMDiscuss] Peru’s knife-edge election could be good news for Latin America’s left (Tony Wood)

Jai Sen jai.sen at cacim.net
Sun Jun 13 16:55:31 CEST 2021

Sunday, June 13, 2021

Peru in movement…, Democracy in movement…, Neoliberalism in movement…, Resistance in movement…, The Left in movement… ?, Abya Yala in movement… ?

[The outcome of Peru’s recent elections are close to being finalised but not yet final (and are also being challenged by the right wing candidate Fujimori).  This is not an incisive article – even to an outsider like me – and fails to address even the issues raised by Aditya Nigam in the article I posted a few days ago (‘No More Poor People In a Rich Country’ – What Will Peru’s Left Victory Mean ?’, https://kafila.online/2021/06/10/no-more-poor-people-in-a-rich-country-what-will-left-victory-mean/ <https://kafila.online/2021/06/10/no-more-poor-people-in-a-rich-country-what-will-left-victory-mean/>).  But it at least seems to bring together the basic figures, and is therefore a useful reminder of just how close this election is and therefore how contested ‘Peru’ is and how contested, and volatile, the coming future is likely to be, whichever way the outcome goes :

Peru’s knife-edge election could be good news for Latin America’s left

The socialist candidate Pedro Castillo is on the verge of victory, but a hostile elite could stymie his agenda

Tony Wood <https://www.theguardian.com/profile/tony-wood-review>
https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2021/jun/12/perus-knife-edge-election-could-be-good-news-for-latin-americas-left <https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2021/jun/12/perus-knife-edge-election-could-be-good-news-for-latin-americas-left>
June 12 2021

Pedro Castillo of Perú Libre greets supporters from party’s headquarters in Lima, Peru. (Photograph: EPA)

Peru’s presidential election has been settled by the slimmest of margins <https://www.theguardian.com/world/2021/jun/08/keiko-fujimori-claims-irregularities-peru-presidential-election-pedro-castillo>, but it signals a momentous change. When all the votes from the second-round run-off on Sunday 6 June were finally counted, the socialist Pedro Castillo, former head of the main teacher’s union, held a razor-thin lead of about 60,000 votes – 0.34% – over Keiko Fujimori, candidate of the right and daughter of former Peruvian president Alberto Fujimori. She has now launched accusations of fraud, demanding that as many as 200,000 votes be nullified. It may take several days for her legal challenges to be heard, and she is clearly still hoping to overturn the result – though the prospect is unlikely. The fact remains that millions of Peruvians joined together to deliver a telling blow to the political and economic model that has dominated the country for the past three decades.

The electoral drama in Peru was in that sense a generational reckoning, comparable to the recent upheavals in Chile <https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2021/may/27/chile-political-establishment-change-elections> and Colombia <https://www.theguardian.com/global-development/2021/jun/09/colombia-protesters-inequality-police>. But it was also the product of the specific political crises Peru has endured in recent years. Since 2018, the country has had two presidents impeached and removed on charges of corruption and one hounded from office by a surge of protests. The sleaze and dysfunction of the established parties was one of the factors that enabled Castillo’s shock breakthrough <https://www.theguardian.com/world/2021/apr/12/peru-presidential-runoff-pedro-castillo-keiko-fujimori> in the first round of voting in April.

Until then he was known mainly for leading a protracted teacher’s strike in 2017, and his party, the avowedly Marxist-Leninist Perú Libre, had no seats in Congress. With only 19% of the vote, he finished first in a crowded field of 18 candidates. Combining redistributive economic policies with socially conservative views, for instance on same-sex marriage, Castillo looks, dresses and talks like the population of Peru’s long-marginalised interior provinces. Fujimori, by contrast, is the arch-insider, having been one of the most powerful players in Peruvian politics for more than a decade. She has run unsuccessfully for president twice before, in 2011 and 2016, and heads the Fuerza Popular party, which held the majority in Congress from 2016 to 2020. The 13% she scored in April, though a remarkable drop from the 40% she secured in the first round in 2016, was still enough for her to scrape through to the run-off.
 <https://www.theguardian.com/world/2021/jun/08/keiko-fujimori-claims-irregularities-peru-presidential-election-pedro-castillo>Peru elections: Fujimori’s fraud claims criticised as rival’s narrow lead widens <https://www.theguardian.com/world/2021/jun/08/keiko-fujimori-claims-irregularities-peru-presidential-election-pedro-castillo>
The second-round campaign at once dramatised and deepened Peru’s stark socioeconomic, political and cultural divides. First, it drew attention to the gulf separating the more prosperous coast from poorer highland regions, which have a larger indigenous population. Castillo, who is from the northern mining region of Cajamarca, drew his support overwhelmingly from the highlands, which saw few of the benefits of the boom years of the 2000s and early 2010s. The Lima-based elite’s attitude to such disparities is perhaps best captured by a phrase Fujimori let slip during a presidential debate held in rural Cajamarca in early May, when she complained of having “had to come all the way here”. (She said afterwards this was a reference to the difficulty of the journey.)

A second crucial fault-line separated Keiko Fujimori’s supporters from those determined to reject the authoritarian legacy of her family’s dynasty. Alberto Fujimori, in power from 1990 to 2000 and currently serving a 25-year sentence for corruption, claims credit for defeating the Maoist Shining Path insurgency and imposing macroeconomic discipline on the country. However, these measures were implemented through harsh anti-democratic means: in 1992, Fujimori suspended the constitution, and the following year wrote a new one granting himself even greater powers. His decade in office was marked by abuses that scar the country to this day, including extrajudicial killings, the forced sterilisation of as many as 270,000 women and colossal corruption.

Widespread rejection of this legacy proved enough to block Keiko Fujimori’s path to the presidency in 2011 and 2016. But in 2021, faced with a candidate from the radical left, she was able to mount a scaremongering campaign. In Peru, leftist candidates and parties are routinely denounced as “terrorists”, tarred by association (however fictional) with the Shining Path, or with Cuba or Venezuela. Fujimori conjured these spectres to bring liberals, centrists and the centre-right into the fold. (“Do you want to live in Cuba?” asked a billboard in Lima before the 6 June vote.) Many prominent figures who had previously opposed her – including Nobel prize winner Mario Vargas Llosa, who had run for president against Fujimori’s father in 1990 – joined the chorus against Castillo, as did most of the Peruvian media.

Trailing by several points in early May, Fujimori steadily closed the gap. But not quite enough. While she did well along the coast, Castillo piled up huge margins in the highlands. This included astonishing victories in the regions most deeply affected by the armed conflict of the 1980s and 1990s: he won 83% of the vote in Ayacucho and 89% in Puno, for instance.

The suffering and economic dislocation caused by the Covid-19 pandemic was a third crucial factor in the election, turning longstanding structural inequalities into immediate matters of life and death. By May 2021, Covid-19 had taken an estimated 180,000 lives in Peru <https://www.theguardian.com/world/2021/jun/01/peru-has-worlds-worst-per-capita-covid-toll-after-death-data-revised>, giving the country the highest per-capita fatality rate in the world. Not surprisingly, Castillo’s election platform begins by declaring health a basic right and denouncing the neoliberal model’s abject failure to provide for Peru’s citizens. It also contains ambitious plans to hold a referendum on drafting a new constitution <https://www.theguardian.com/global-development/2021/may/05/pedro-castillo-peru-presidential-candidate>, to nationalise key natural resources, and to overhaul the agricultural sector, favouring peasant smallholders over giant agro-exporters.

Yet as the closeness of the contest suggests, Castillo faces formidable obstacles to implementing any of his agenda. It will no doubt encounter stiff opposition from entrenched elite interests and coastal middle classes hostile to the left. Then there is the highly fragmented composition of the Congress, in which Castillo’s party holds only 37 of 130 seats. The riven geography of the vote also points to a profound political polarisation that will make coherent policymaking difficult.

But for all that, the outcome of the election in itself offers some cause for optimism. After several years in which the right seized hold of the agenda in Latin America, Castillo’s win will raise the hopes of the region’s left. For Peru, it holds out at least the possibility of a future beyond the demoralising corruption and life-threatening disparities of the neoliberal model.

Tony Wood is a postdoctoral researcher in Latin American studies at Princeton University


Jai Sen

Independent researcher, editor; Senior Fellow at the School of International Development and Globalisation Studies at the University of Ottawa

jai.sen at cacim.net <mailto:jai.sen at cacim.net> &  <mailto:jsen at uottawa.ca>jsen at uottawa.ca <mailto:jsen at uottawa.ca>
Now based in Ottawa, Canada, on unsurrendered Anishinaabe territory (+1-613-282 2900) and in New Delhi, India (+91-98189 11325)

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