Peru’s Political Nightmare Just Got Worse

World Politics Review, 15.04.2021
Frida Ghitis, columnista y analista internacional

Presidential candidate of the Peru Libre party Pedro Castillo speaks during a conference in Chota, Peru.
(AP/Martin Mejia).

A dozen years ago, when Peruvians were heading to the polls for a presidential runoff election, the acclaimed novelist Mario Vargas Llosa, who had himself once tried his hand at politics, famously likened the choice voters faced between the two remaining candidates to that between AIDS and cancer. Since then, Peruvians have seen their political system careen off the rails, culminating in last weekend’s first-round presidential election, the outcome of which sent financial markets tumbling and left the country in shock.

A mind-boggling 18 candidates were on the ballot, ensuring a thoroughly fragmented vote and an unpredictable result. But even those who expected the unexpected didn’t imagine that the largely unknown Pedro Castillo and his very far-left party, Peru Libre, would take first place.

If Castillo’s victory came as a surprise, the second-place finisher—who will go head-to-head with him in the second round in June—left millions of Peruvians as despondent about the choice they will now face as many were 12 years ago. Keiko Fujimori—the right-wing daughter of the imprisoned, authoritarian former President Alberto Fujimori—appears to have edged out her closest opponents, setting the stage for a far-left versus far-right election. Peruvians who wanted centrist policies are left with a dilemma likely to elicit revulsion—and perhaps new metaphors from Vargas Llosa, now living in Spain.

More than 80 percent of Peruvians voted for someone other than Castillo in the first round. That figure is even greater for Fujimori, who finished second in the previous three presidential elections, but had scored the highest negative poll numbers of any prominent politician in the country before Sunday’s ballot. She was one of the two candidates that elicited Vargas Llosa’s medical pathology simile back in 2009. The other—Ollanta Humala, who went on to win and become president—was the leftist alternative at the time. His left-of-center views sound quaintly moderate compared to Castillo’s.

And yet, it’s not difficult to understand why Castillo, a former schoolteacher, managed to mobilize his followers. Peruvians are fed up with their country’s politics and politicians.

Trust me, you would be, too.

Corruption and political shenanigans have become so entrenched in Peru that three former presidents, including Humala, have been imprisoned as part of corruption investigations. One former president, Alan Garcia, killed himself as he was about to be arrested, maintaining his innocence.

Other prominent figures, including Keiko Fujimori, have also been implicated in corruption scandals. She was sentenced to preventive detention on charges of money laundering connected to the massive Odebrecht bribery scandal, but was later released on bail in February.

In recent months, Peru has gone through as many presidents as neighboring Ecuador has in the past 14 years. When Pedro Pablo Kuczynski, the winner of the last presidential election, stepped down in 2018 amid corruption allegations and impeachment proceedings, he was replaced by Martin Vizcarra, at the time Kuczynski’s largely unknown vice president. Vizcarra was impeached five months ago in what looked like a purely political maneuver. His successor, Manuel Merino, lasted less than a week in office. The winner of this election will be the fourth president in less than a year.

While Peru’s leaders were tangled up in political gamesmanship and corrupt dealings, the country has suffered through a catastrophic coronavirus pandemic, with one of the worst death rates in Latin America. Corruption scandals, not surprisingly, have plagued the hapless vaccination rollout. The official number of COVID-19 deaths stands at 55,000, but the number of excess deaths is almost triple that. And even those who have not succumbed to the disease have had to endure persistent shortages of oxygen and other basic supplies.

The pandemic also crushed the economy, which contracted by 11 percent, the worst in the region, and the situation is only growing worse. On Election Day, Peru registered a new daily record, with 384 COVID-19 deaths.

Peruvians, who are required by law to vote, are so fed up with politicians that blank and spoiled ballots exceeded those for any single candidate in Sunday’s voting.

And yet, Castillo somehow managed to persuade a sizeable piece of the electorate to support him. Polls in March had him at just 3 percent. As recently as a week ago, there were signs of a surge, to 6 percent. He ended up capturing close to 20 percent of the vote, mainly by mobilizing rural Peruvians, who see the elites in Lima as unconcerned about their struggles.

In a country as impoverished as Peru, the urgent need to improve the lot of the poor is unquestionable. But the governing plan of Castillo’s Peru Libre is not just about fighting poverty. His commitment to democracy itself is questionable at best.

On the economy he is far left, while on social issues he is far right, opposing abortion and same-sex marriage. The party’s platform praises Lenin and Fidel Castro. “Socialism,” reads the plan, “does not advocate a free press, but a press committed to the education and cohesion of the people.” It goes on, “Lenin was right when he declared that a free press is only possible when society is free of the yoke of capitalism.”

The party and Castillo, who supports the calamitous regime of Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro, promise an aggressive push to nationalize natural resources and related industries, as well as roads, airports, ports, pension plans and more. In addition, the platform calls for the annulment of free trade agreements, saying they “have turned us into a commercial colony.”

Interestingly, Castillo said he would issue a pardon for Antauro Humala, the brother of the former president, who is serving a 25-year sentence for leading an attack on a rural police station that left four police officers dead in 2005. Antauro Humala led a violent, ethno-nationalist organization that mixed far-left economics with a 1930s-style racial ideology that asserted the superiority of “copper-skinned” Andeans.

When asked if he would also free Alberto Fujimori, Castillo said no. But there’s little doubt his rival, if she won, would free her father, who was convicted of corruption but also crimes against humanity.

If Castillo does not look like a committed democrat, the younger Fujimori also gives reason for concern. She’s a believer in free markets, but also in a powerful state with a strong hand. She describes her political vision as a “demodura,” which is a portmanteau of democracy and dura—hard in Spanish—but also of democracy and dictadura, or dictatorship. She adamantly denies that what she proposes is the latter. “A hard hand is not a dictatorship,” she says. “It is a strong democracy.”

For despondent Peruvians weighing their unsettling options, the only consolation may come from the very instability the country has seen in recent years. After all, these days, Peruvian presidents don’t last very long in office.

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