Peru in Limbo

Valeria Costa-Kostritsky

In the second round of the Peruvian presidential election on Sunday 6 June, the left-wing (but socially conservative) outsider Pedro Castillo was standing against the right-wing candidate Keiko Fujimori, the daughter of former president Alberto Fujimori, currently serving a 25-year sentence for kidnapping and murder.

The results from cities came in first. Fujimori appeared to be slightly ahead. In Lima she won 64 per cent of the vote. But at the end of Monday morning Castillo had overtaken, and his advantage was further confirmed as votes from rural and Amazonian regions were tallied. Before the official count had ended, Fujimori accused her opponent of fraud, and, with the help of several law firms, called for 200,000 votes to be declared null and a further 300,000 to be scrutinised.

On 11 June, the Office of Electoral Processes (ONPE) announced that all votes had been processed and that Castillo had won 50.1 per cent of them. The Jurado Nacional de Elecciones was still to review the votes and declare the winner. Fujimori has continued to challenge the results. I spoke to Carlos León Moya, a political scientist in Lima. ‘The claims of fraud have created a climate of tension,’ he said, ‘and we are in limbo, an unusual limbo for Peru, because we’ve never been the Thursday after the elections and wondering what’s going to happen now.’

The evidence so far produced to support the fraud allegations looks thin. José Luis Ramos Salinas is a sociologist in Arequipa, Peru’s second city, which voted for Castillo en masse. ‘They’ve claimed fraud for polling stations where Fujimori hasn’t obtained any votes,’ he told me, ‘or where three polling station staff have the same last name, which is very common in some parts of Peru’ – electoral officials aren’t supposed to be related – ‘or where someone’s signature is different from the signature on their ID, which is why they are made to leave their fingerprints on the documents.’

Fujimori has previously lost two presidential election run-offs, against Ollanta Humala in 2011 and Pedro Pablo Kuczynski five years ago. ‘In 2016, Fujimori admitted she had lost,’ León Moya said, ‘but she never called Kuczynski president and sought revenge against his weak government.’ Having won a majority in Congress, Fujimori waged a campaign against Kuczynski until he was impeached in 2018. Many Peruvians blame her in part for the political instability of the last five years.

‘Now, in a sort of reproduction of Trump’s strategy,’ León Moya said, ‘Fujimori doesn’t recognise the election results. She is making the country go through two weeks of uncertainty, no matter the cost.’ He said the Fujimoristas have held marches in front of the ONPE: ‘Here’s hoping they won’t attack the Palacio Legislativo.’

Fujimori is under investigation for possible involvement in organised crime and money laundering for the Brazilian company Odebrecht. Prosecutors are seeking a thirty-year prison sentence.On 10 June, they asked for her to be returned to preventive detention (she was released in May 2020) to stop her communicating with witnesses. Fujimori was dismissive of the suggestion and denies all the allegations. Had she won the election, the investigation would have been suspended for the duration of her five-year term.

The man who might otherwise have been her opponent in these elections, Vladimir Cerrón, the founder and general secretary of the socialist party Perú Libre, was given a four-year jail term in 2019 for corruption. Castillo, a schoolteacher from an Andean village in the north of Peru, was one of the leaders of a national strike in 2017. He announced his presidential run in October 2020 and won the first round in April (in a field of nearly twenty candidates) with 18 per cent of the vote. His outsider status helped him; Cerrón probably wouldn’t have done as well.

In Lima, during the two months between rounds, the support for Fujimori was visible. There were huge posters throughout the city, ‘particularly on the main avenues which go through fancy districts’, according to Thaiz Carlín, a political science student. ‘They didn’t even need to mention Fujimori’s name. They would say: “No to communism”, “I don’t like her either but what can I do?” or “Think of your children”.’ Carlín, a feminist, was dismayed at a run-off between two socially conservative candidates. Most newspapers and TV stations supported Fujimori, broadcasting her final rally but not Castillo’s.

‘The campaign unleashed a racism that Peru hadn’t seen for a long time,’ Ramos Salinas said. ‘Fujimori claimed she represented democracy and would fight corruption. Castillo was painted as representing terrorism.’ The slang terms terruco (‘terrorist’) and terruquear (‘to call someone a terrorist’) were coined during Peru’s internal conflict between the Sendero Luminoso (Shining Path) and the government. The words are still used to disparage left-wing individuals. Carlín said it had been ‘painful’ to witness her family terruquear Perú Libre supporters. ‘There’s still racism. Only the words used change.’

Looking at the Facebook walls of some of my Peruvian aunties, I noticed that some of their friends call Castillo ‘el senderista’. A business owner in Chiclayo, a city in the north of Peru, told me he was convinced there had been voting irregularities. He called Castillo ‘a totally improvised candidate who doesn’t have a platform and is backed by a Marxist-Leninist party, and most likely supported by South America’s socialist current’.

Ramos Salinas disagrees. ‘Castillo is an evangelist,’ he says, ‘right-wing but with real social leanings who cannot stand that half of the country has been marginalised for five hundred years.’

At the end of May, Peru revised its official Covid-19 death toll to more than 180,000, making it the country with the worst death rate per capita. It is also facing a stark economic crisis.

Castillo won’t have a majority in Congress. ‘In a way, his first task will be to try to stay in power for a year,’ León Moya said, predicting ‘a prolonged and chaotic confrontation ahead’.

Peru is still a long way from being a stable democracy, Ramos Salinas said. ‘But a fundamental change has taken place. People in Lima are appalled because the city is full of cholos’ – a derogatory term for Indigenous people – ‘who have come from the provinces and are sleeping in the streets because they suspect their victory could be taken away and they won’t allow that. The invisible are now visible. They are still looked down on but they are visible.’


  • 21 June 2021 at 12:55am
    RobotBoy says:
    Once again, a falling tide exposes the deep cultural divide in Peru and the contempt for 'cholos' in the aspirational middle class and old elites. Mario Vargas Llosa has, with sad reliability, stepped out of his Madrid manor to plump for Fujimori and warn against 'dictatorship' if Castillo is allowed to take power. Pretty nice example of irony there.

  • 22 June 2021 at 5:24pm
    ianbrowne says:

    Mario Vargas Llosa is an interesting figure – interesting in the sense that he thinks of himself as being a liberal and has even written a book which purports to be an examination of liberal thought, “La Llamada de la Tribu” (“The Call of the Tribe”).
    Vargas Llosa said in 2010 about Keiko Fujimori that “If the daughter of the dictator who has been jailed for being a criminal and a thief could possibly become the president of Peru, I will be one of the Peruvians who will strive to try to stop that happening using every possible legal means.” But as RobotBoy pointed out, he changed his tune when Keiko Fujimori was faced with an opponent who was determined to bring a degree of social justice to Peru. Despite Keiko Fujimori facing 30 years in prison for corruption, in the run up to this year’s election Vargas Llosa advised Peruvians to vote for her: “Peruvians should vote for Keiko Fujimori because she represents the lesser of two evils and, if she’s in power, there are more possibilities of saving our democracy”. Since then Novaramedia has reported that Mario Vargas Llosa went on national television to warn against the recognition of Castillo’s victory and the power of the peasantry as “chaos for city people”.
    Unfortunately, I don’t speak Spanish so for the content of The Call of the Tribe I am reliant on an interview he gave to the Economist in 2018. Vargas Llosa identifies seven key liberal thinkers who form the subjects of his book - Adam Smith, José Ortega y Gasset, Friedrich Hayek, Karl Popper, Raymond Aron, Isaiah Berlin, and Jean-François Revel. As the interviewer pointed out, his choice of great liberals was, to say the least, idiosyncratic, as neither John Stuart Mill nor John Rawls feature in Vargas Llosa’s list of liberals. Suffice it to say that Adam Smith had, as far as I’m aware very little to say about democracy or the freedom of the individual to realise his plans for his life – one of the main ideas of Mill. Hayek certainly has nothing to say about the difficulty of securing consent to the basic democratic structure of society, since Hayek was generally indifferent towards democracy. If you want to think about that, you need to read Rawls.
    A lot of people who claim to be liberals, particularly liberals of the economic liberal variety, think they are also democrats because they think the purpose of democracy is to ensure that the middle calls get what they want. Clearly the Peruvian election has not given the middle class what they want. It is this which leads them to describe the result of a democratic election as anti-democratic or as failing of democracy. Of course, no one is so stupid as to say directly that winning the majority of the votes is anti-democratic, so they have to resort of Fujimori’s tactic of challenging the legitimacy of the vote. As we have seen in the last few days, some members of the middle class are calling for a rerun of the elections and the removal of the right to vote from supporters of Castillo, just to make doubly sure they would get the result the middle class wants.
    This is precisely the sort of reaction that Rawls, in his conception of public reason as a precondition of a liberals society, tried to explore. But if you don’t read Rawls and instead you read Hayek and think that you understand the complexities of liberalism and democracy… well no wonder Vargas Llosa seems to have trouble recognizing a democratic outcome when one stares him in the face.
    Vargas Llosa look like a man out of his depth when he talks about political philosophy. If he can’t be bothered to read Mill and Rawls, perhaps he could dust off his old copy of Popper’s The Open Society and its Enemies. One of the principal enemies of an open society is Platonic political philosophy – which according to Popper is anti-democratic, aligned with oligarchs and contemptuous of ordinary people and their concerns. That sounds like a description of Fujimorism to me.