In Brief

Will Peru’s Polarized Election Bring More Instability?

In a June 6 presidential runoff, Peruvians will choose between divisive candidates whose campaigns have raised concerns about the country lurching into extremist policies and democratic backsliding. The result could spell further instability for the country and even the region.

Peru has experienced unprecedented political instability in recent years. The winner of next weekend’s presidential runoff will be the country’s fifth executive in as many years. The two candidates to emerge from the crowded first round are dissimilar and deeply controversial: left-wing Pedro Castillo and right-wing Keiko Fujimori. Although Castillo is leading in the polls, Fujimori’s recent surge means either could win. 

Who is Pedro Castillo?

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Castillo is a rural schoolteacher and union leader representing the Free Peru party. He was also part of a contentious self-defense group that protected rural communities against attacks by the Shining Path, a Maoist guerrilla organization, in the 1980s. Castillo, who was relatively unknown until recently, launched a campaign espousing Marxist and nationalist ideals, alienating even center-left voters with his dogmatism. Still, he managed a surprise first-place finish in the first electoral round in April.

Pedro Castillo, dressed in a white shirt and wide-brimmed hat, fist bumps Keiko Fujimori, who is wearing a tan suit, in front of the Peruvian flag.
Peruvian presidential candidates Pedro Castillo and Keiko Fujimori will face each other in a runoff on June 6, 2021. Sebastian Castaneda/Reuters

Unlike his opponent, Castillo has moderated his tone and platform in recent weeks to broaden his appeal. However, Castillo says that, if elected, he will seek to renegotiate contracts with lucrative mining and energy companies and raise taxes on them, which has alarmed the business sector. Furthermore, Castillo promises to oversee a rewrite of the country’s constitution that would enshrine protections for Peruvians against “subjugation” by the United States and international financial institutions. Although his motivations for an overhaul are alienating to some, there is broad support among the electorate to replace the existing constitution.

Who is Keiko Fujimori?

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Fujimori is a former congresswoman from the right-wing Popular Force party. She once served as first lady to her father, former President Alberto Fujimori, who is in prison for crimes against humanity, corruption, and mismanagement of government funds. She herself was detained twice on bribery charges; in 2020, she was released on bail. Fujimori declared her candidacy following the ouster of President Martin Vizcarra amid a constitutional crisis in November. Many Peruvians see her presidential run as a thinly veiled attempt to secure immunity from prosecution and to pardon her father.

Despite strong anti-authoritarian currents among the electorate, Fujimori’s campaign has not shied away from Alberto’s undemocratic legacy. She promises to resurrect pro-market policies and heavy-handed responses to insecurity, including against small but violent remnants of the Shining Path.

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Is this polarization a sign of increasing antiestablishment tendencies?

Distrust of establishment figures in Peru is not a new phenomenon. The Odebrecht corruption scandal—the largest foreign bribery case in history, according to the U.S. Department of Justice—brought down some of Peru’s most notable officials and eviscerated public confidence in the political class. Also, the judicial branch has faced heightened scrutiny in the wake of a 2018 bribery scheme that implicated some three hundred officials, including judges who issued favorable verdicts and sentences in exchange for kickbacks.

Furthermore, decades of underinvestment in the health system and the unsustainability of pandemic lockdowns in a country where most people are employed in the informal economy have led to a catastrophic surge in COVID-19 infections. In 2020, Peru registered among the world’s highest known COVID-19 death rates per capita and reported the region’s largest contraction in gross domestic product (GDP). The government’s inability to meet citizens’ needs amid the pandemic has contributed to an overall disaffection with the country’s institutions and officials.

After last year’s constitutional crisis, is political stability possible?

Only if the electoral winner moderates their stances. A Peruvian president’s chances of success lie in the executive’s relationship with Congress. Peru’s fragmented party system and the relative unpopularity of both candidates suggest that the legislature could stonewall the next president’s most ambitious agenda items. Castillo’s party controls 37 of the 130 seats, a tiny plurality in a Congress that hosts more than ten political parties. Likewise, Fujimori’s party holds a mere 24 seats after losing its congressional majority in 2019. To govern, Peru’s president will need to moderate their policies to attract centrist legislators and form coalitions.

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Neither candidate’s history or rhetoric suggests this is likely, which portends gridlock or even irregular transfers of power in the legislature or executive. The specter of corruption looms large over both candidates and their parties, and Peru’s legislature and courts have proven relatively adept at holding senior officials accountable. Five consecutive presidents, including Vizcarra, have all faced investigations or imprisonment for alleged corruption. The other branches of government could employ similar tactics to remove the victor of the election.

What do Peru’s recent experience and the countrys prospects mean for the region?

Populist authoritarian presidents in countries including Brazil, El Salvador, and Mexico represent a grave risk to democratic governance in Latin America; they have eroded checks and balances, militarized the provision of public services, and attacked press freedom. Nonetheless, the divisiveness of Peru’s two presidential candidates makes it unlikely that either would harness the popular support needed to follow in their regional counterparts’ footsteps.

The dysfunction of Peru’s institutions, however, could spawn additional waves of discontent and unrest, especially as the government struggles to distribute COVID-19 vaccines and grow the economy. The emergence of polarizing and even fringe presidential candidates in Peru could be a sign of what is to come elsewhere in Latin America, where high inequality, rising unemployment, fractured party systems, fiscal crises, and the worst effects of the pandemic are fueling contempt for politics as usual.

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