Contested: Keiko Fujimori on the campaign trail. Photo: REUTERS/Sebastian Castaneda

Peru's unhappy birthday

How the country’s looming bicentenary is marred by an election that has settled nothing and risked everything
July 16, 2021

After the second round of voting in Peru’s presidential election—in a country estimated to have the highest per capita coronavirus death rate in the world, at 160,000 in a population of 32m—there remains no official winner.

The polarised contest on 6th June was fought by two very different candidates. On the left was Pedro Castillo, a former teacher and union leader from Peru’s Andean region. On the right was Keiko Fujimori, daughter of Alberto Fujimori, the autocrat who ruled the country from 1990 to 2000 and is serving 25 years in prison for kidnap and murder. Animosity is never far away in Latin American politics—but this time it felt especially close, both because of Fujimori’s background and because Castillo, who is of indigenous origin, would be the first Peruvian president unconnected to the country’s elite.

Scared by Fujimori’s campaign—which characterised Castillo and his “Marxist-Leninist” Free Peru party as liable to lead the country into Venezuelan-style ruin—the wealthiest regions along the coast and in Lima swung decisively for her Popular Force. The poorer Andean and southern regions—home to most of Peru’s indigenous peoples, who comprise a quarter of the population—voted, as usual, for the left. Neither candidate inspired much hope for the future. The election “showed the failure of our political class,” Peruvian political scientist Zaraí Toledo told me. “It was very poor in proposals, but rich in fear. Candidates mainly said, ‘vote for me because I am less bad than the other.’”

After all ballots were counted, Castillo led the popular vote by less than 1 per cent. But Fujimori and her party have since claimed fraud, demanding Peru’s electoral tribunal review ballots and scrap supposedly dubious votes—which are, conveniently, clustered in the rural areas dominated by Castillo. With an absolute gap of only 44,000 votes, any change to the count could prove decisive.

To anyone who watched Donald Trump’s non-concession in the US, a lot of this will be familiar. “The problem is that months—if not years—of disinformation by far-right channels has created a landscape where people don’t know what’s true anymore,” the historian José Ragas told me. “There’s absolutely no evidence that there was fraud.” This view is upheld by international observers, who have praised Peru’s electoral authorities for running a transparent, clean and fair election. The US State Department described the process as a “model of democracy.”

But Fujimori has a lot to lose if her defeat is confirmed. She has been accused of money laundering and running a criminal organisation, and if convicted would face a 30-year prison sentence. Had she won the election, the investigation against her would have been suspended throughout her five-year term.

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Peru's next president? Free Peru candidate Pedro Castillo with supporters in May. REUTERS / Sebastian Castaneda

As the stalemate continued, successive coups de théâtre disrupted the electoral process. On 21st June, many a Latin American memory was stirred when a group of retired military officers called on the army to instigate a coup. Then, on 23rd June, Luis Acre of the electoral tribunal—who is under investigation for corruption and possibly sympathetic to Fujimori—was suspended after refusing to carry out his duties. The same week, leaked recordings appeared to indicate that Alberto Fujimori’s one-time intelligence chief, who is serving multiple sentences in a maximum-security naval base, had nonetheless managed to make several calls to a retired colonel, and sought to bribe tribunal magistrates to recount in Fujimori’s favour. The leak cast doubts on Fujimori’s repeated assurances that she has distanced herself from her father’s undemocratic legacy.

The tribunal has until 28th July—the day Peru celebrates 200 years of independence—to declare a winner. Otherwise, the head of Congress may be sworn-in as interim president. Because he received the most votes in Congress after ex-president Martin Vizcarra, who was recently barred from public office for 10 years, that job is likely to fall to Jorge Montoya, a retired navy admiral from the far-right Popular Renewal party. In grim foreboding, Montoya has already called for the dissolution of the election authorities and the nullification of the result.

I asked Toledo if what is happening could be called a coup. She said: “we could also describe it as an attack on all the country’s institutions, the judiciary, the media, the electoral process, civil society… This is much deeper than saying there is a coup linked to the actions of one group at one moment in time. This is a long-term attack on democracy, and it will carry on after we have overcome this crisis.”

Even if Castillo is elected, Toledo is convinced Peru is “much more likely to face ungovernability than communism.” He would face strong opposition in Congress, from the country’s elite and the media. And while Castillo “will need to figure out how to last a year,” Peruvians will have to figure how to live with each other. As Toledo says: “we are getting to the bicentenary without having found a single thing that Peruvians… could have in common.”