Perú engulfed in flames: Inside the country’s political firestorm

By Paul Alex Treadaway

What lies ahead for a divided country and it’s unconventional new president?

The words “I am going to recognise the results because that is what the law and constitution mandates” hardly strike a tone of reconciliation in the wake of a heated political campaign in Peru. However, these were the words of defeated presidential candidate Keiko Fujimori upon the pronouncement by the Peruvian National Jury of Elections on July 19 that Perú Libre’s (Free Peru) nominee Pedro Castillo was the victor in the country’s 2021 presidential contest.

Despite the two rounds of voting having concluded the previous month, Fujimori had been battling through the courts to challenge the legitimacy of Castillo’s razor thin margin of victory; 50.3% to Fujimori’s 49.9% of the vote, amounting to 44,000 votes among a total of 17.6 million cast. In the melee Mr. Castillo remained largely silent, whilst Ms Fujimori promoted unfounded allegations of electoral fraud, despite the lack of any evidence to back her claims.

A somewhat quirky and puzzling figure, Mr. Castillo’s only previous attempt to fill public office – that of a local mayor in 2002 – failed and his political resume boils down to leadership of an educational strike in 2017. Notwithstanding his lack of profile, Mr. Castillo’s successful inauguration on July 28 came despite the previous two months of political squabbling, but his assumption of the presidency does not mean the ideological war in Peru is over even if he has won this particular battle.

An ugly mix of trust and trauma

Since 1990, Peru has witnessed the coming and going of nine presidents. Of the nine, seven have courted controversy and corruption with an impressive consistency, facing criminal charges ranging from bribery to human rights violations, whilst former president Alan García dramatically committed suicide to avoid arrest in a corruption case in 2019.

The sleaze and stench of Peruvian politics since the end of the country’s civil war three decades ago has led to an incredible mistrust of politicians amongst ordinary Peruvians. In 2007 an OECD survey found only 25% of Peruvians trusted their national government, whilst a repeat of the poll in 2018 recorded no significant change in attitudes, displaying levels of faith in politicians among the lowest in Latin America.

Overall public skepticism of politics is paired precariously with a notable urban-rural divide. Pedro Castillo’s popularity in both rounds of presidential voting came from Peru’s mountainous regions, where the former school teacher garnered more than 50% of the vote in the first round whilst totaling only 19% nationally.

Mr. Castillo’s opponent, Keiko Fujimori, meanwhile found her support concentrated in Peru’s urban conurbations in and surrounding Lima, representing the political establishment both demographically, all but two Peruvian presidents since 1956 have been from Lima, and in a more literal sense. Alberto Fujimori, Peru’s president from 1990 until his fleeing from the country in 2000 and Ms. Fujimori’s father, casts a shadow over politics in the Latin American nation, having ruled Peru with an authoritarian grip that saw the constitution reformed in his own image and all dissent extinguished.

The legacy of the elder Fujimori can be seen in the branding of Mr. Castillo during the 2021 presidential election campaign as a symbol of ‘terruqueo’ by Ms. Fujimori, a term used to refer to the terrorism of the Marxist-Leninist guerrilla group ‘The Shining Path’ during the 1980s and 1990s that saw rural areas of Peru in particular paralysed by violence.

The activities of the Shining Path form part of a narrative of historical injustice for rural Peruvians. Illiterate, often indigenous citizens, were barred from voting until a constitutional amendment in 1979; a majority of Peru’s rural population being of indigenous origin, helping to forge a social chasm between urban Peru and the country’s interior. Mr. Castillo himself has been accused of having links to the remnants of the Shining Path, while his party Perú Libre’s self-labelled Marxist-Leninist inspired platform has done little to calm nervousness amongst Lima’s political classes over Mr. Castillo’s assumption of the presidency.

A chaotic campaign, a chaotic future?

Dancing with provocative statements during a chaotic presidential campaign, Mr. Castillo notably declared that Venezuelan immigrants, of which there are over a million in the country, “arrived in Peru to commit crimes”, distracting from progressive campaign pledges of further involvement from the state in business and constitutional reform that won him a slender majority of votes.

But now that the horns have sounded, and the presidential standard has been worn by Mr. Castillo in the pomp and circumstance of a presidential inauguration, what chance does Perú Libre’s standard bearer have of enacting his policy goals and, if at all possible, repairing Peru’s lingering societal cracks?

There’s work to be done

Mr. Castillo’s rhetoric on the economy, implying a renewed wave of nationalisation similar to those seen in the mid-2000s in Bolivia under former president Evo Morales, is highly unlikely to be backed by a splintered congress, albeit one with a right of centre plurality. This is mainly due to the anxieties of many within Peru’s political class over where this leaves the balance of their wallets, although a shared memory of Peru’s recent authoritarian past further compounds opposition to such a move by Mr. Castillo.

On the other key tenet of Mr. Castillo’s campaign, the aim to repair the damage of Alberto Fujimori’s dictatorship in the form of Peru’s still active 1993 Constitution by effectively getting rid of it, the former union representative faces similar challenges. In order to construct and propose a new constitution, Peruvian law mandates the formation of a constitutional assembly as approved by a public referendum, with the findings of the assembly and any subsequent constitutional proposals also put to a public vote.

However, all these elements must be approved each step of the way by Mr. Castillo’s very own political villain – Peru’s congress. In a similar vein to the likely reality of Mr. Castillo’s economic aims being torpedoed by the legislature, the chances of constitutional reform making it through the infighting and partisan gate keeping of congress also seem slim.

The shadows of controversy and corruption

On the topic of bringing the nation together, Mr. Castillo has so far experienced mixed fortunes. The new president’s criticism of the “racial regime” of the Spanish conquistadors and initial commitment to forgo taking up residency in Peru’s presidential palace in Lima sparked intrigue and some praise, but his appointment of an unpredictable member of Congress, Perú Libre’s Guido Bellido as Prime Minister, has prompted unease.

Bellido’s past statements voicing approval of the banning of LGBTQ people from participating in the 1959 Cuban revolution led by Fidel Castro don’t lend themselves to the prospect of a calm and inclusive administration; Mr. Castillo himself has also already reversed course on his sidestepping of the presidential palace, after legal experts questioned the lack of record of whom the new president was meeting at a private office.

All the while, Peru’s recent history of presidential corruption hangs above Mr. Castillo like a dark and foreboding cloud – most of Peru’s post-civil war presidents have been impeached, arrested or placed behind bars. Mr. Castillo will have to pull off a political miracle to avoid a similar fate with a combative congress and a political atmosphere akin to a lit match about to be dropped on to fuel. Whether Mr. Castillo is engulfed in the ensuing flames or indeed fanning them, only time will tell.

Featured image courtesy of Globovisión. You can find a copy of the license here.