Presidential Elections in Peru Reveal a Deeply Divided Country

David Lovatón Palacios*

The fox from above and the fox from below– José María Arguedas

Country of Jauja a possible utopia, which is that of respectful and enriching coexistence between cultures– Edgardo Rivera Martínez

Last Sunday, June 6, the second round of elections took place in Peru between two presidential candidates who obtained the largest number of votes in the general elections on April 11: the leftist, Pedro Castillo of the Free Perú (Perú Libre) party and the right-wing, Keiko Fujimori of the Popular Force (Fuerza Popular) party. At the time of writing this article, the Peruvian National Office of Electoral Processes (Oficina Nacional de Procesos Electorales, ONPE) had already processed 99.82% of the electoral records; the result, although very close, is clear: Castillo obtained 50.204% and Fujimori 49.796% of the votes. By a difference of only 71,441 votes, in an electoral universe of almost 25 million voters, it is most likely that Pedro Castillo will be the next president of the Republic for the 2021-2026 five-year term.

However, Fujimori and her party have still yet to recognize this result, and have announced that they will fight for each and every vote. Fujimori’s team has already officially filed appeals before the electoral justice challenging around 800 voting tables, which would imply the revision of around 500,000 votes, arguing that serious irregularities could have been committed in those voting tables to favor Pedro Castillo.

This appeal process raises some serious problems. First, it raises the expectations of Fujimori’s voters that she did and will triumph which, if that does not happen, could contribute to greater social and political polarization. Talking about fraud at this point and with such high stakes is to play with fire. Second, the Perú Libre party does not have the capacity to have perpetrated fraud; on the contrary, what has characterized the Perú Libre party is their precariousness and lack of experience to the point that Castillo had to resort to recruiting and including professionals from other leftist parties for this second round. Third, there is no indication whatsoever that the electoral bodies were involved in these irregularities, something that even Fujimori does not suggest. Fourth, according to Peruvian electoral law, most of these questions should have been raised at the polling stations themselves. In any case, this time the National Jury of Elections (Jurado Nacional de Elecciones, JNE) will eventually have to resolve them. Fifth, if Fujimori manages to reverse this electoral result in her favor, a large part of the country will have the sensation that she won in court what she couldn’t win in the field.

It is worth remembering that both candidates went to the second round with relatively low total percentages of the vote in part due to the fragmentation of the vote across several political parties: Castillo obtained 18.90% and Fujimori 13.40%. That is to say, 7 out of 10 voters did not vote for either candidate in the first round. Inthis second round, this almost 70 percent of the electorate was using the logic of selecting the «lesser evil». In spite of this difficult choice, voter absenteeism was 25%, that is to say 6,300,000 people decided not to vote.Furthermore, in Peru null and blank votes are not considered valid and that accounted for 6.36% of the votes cast which is almost 1,200,000 votes. Almost 1 out of every 3 Peruvians did not vote for either candidatein the second round.

The following is a brief summary and analysis of this electoral campaign and what scenarios could emerge.

A fear campaign ending in a boomerang

As stated in a previous article, there are justified reasons to distrust both candidates. But the second round was marked by a brutal campaign against Pedro Castillo by the private press based in Lima[1] and social media. Castillo was accused of not only being a communist and of having links to Cuba and Venezuela -of which there are indeed worrying indicators-, but he was also accused of being linked to Shining Path (Sendero Luminoso, SL), a terrorist organization that kept the country in suspense in the eighties and nineties. The latteraccusation grants SL a power and influence in Perú that it, thankfully, has not had for a long time. All of these attacks were often accompanied by condemnable classist, racist and discriminatory claims as well.

What is worrying about the probable Pedro Castillo government is the possible influence of Vladimir Cerrón. Cerrón is the leader of the Perú Libre party -which supported Castillo’s presidential candidacy-, was governor of the Junín region (Central Highlands) and has been convicted for corruption-related crimes while he was in office. However, part of Perú Libre’s parliamentary members is loyal to Cerrón, not Castillo, and this group has recently succeeded in getting a judge to annul the sentence against him. Although this judicial decision may be reversed, it undoubtedly fuels -even more- the concern about the role of this questionable character in an eventual Castillo government. 

But in this second round, Castillo was not the only individual demonized, but the «terruqueo» -a colloquial expression used to describe an attempt to unjustifiably link a person to SL- also included blaming the brave prosecutors who have been investigating Keiko Fujimori for serious corruption charges and the president of the National Jury of Elections (JNE) himself, who is an incumbent Supreme judge, among others.

This campaign struck a chord with a large part of the electorate in Lima and the coast -which really ended up still being terrified- and had the opposite effect in the rest of the country. This other important part of the electorate perceived the fear campaign of the concentrated press as abusive and, in protest and out of weariness, voted precisely for the candidate who was harshly questioned. A similar situation occurred in the 2011 elections when Ollanta Humala won. In fact, I know people who were going to cast blank votes (votar en blanco), but this media abuse pushed them to vote for Castillo — a boomerang effect.

Country that Demands to be Listened to and Split in Two

As described at the beginning of this article, Pedro Castillo would have won by a very narrow margin of about 71,000 votes: about two national stadiums in Lima when our long-suffering national soccer team plays. I suspect that the same would happen if candidate Fujimori manages to reverse the results. In that sense, this second electoral round has left the country politically divided in two: a little more than half supporting Castillo and the other half supporting Fujimori. However, this electoral support in the second round is volatile, since the majority that voted for Castillo was either for a change or to maintain the current government model, not because voters were particularly enthusiastic about the candidates.

On the other hand, what these elections again show is a large part of the country demands that it be heard. This country demands -legitimately and democratically every five years- changes that improve their living conditions: higher employment, increased salaries, better education, better health care, social and environmental licensing of extractive projects to be installed in their territories, less corruption, better road infrastructure and public services such as electricity, water and internet. In other words, a country that feels that it is not listened to by the political and economic elites of Lima in a still a centralist state like Perú.

For this reason, Castillo won widely in the South and in the Highlands, precisely where much of the country’spoverty is concentrated and where some extractive projects have generated acute social conflicts. On the other hand, Fujimori won in Lima, Callao and the Central and Northern Coast, precisely where Perú hasbenefited most from the economic growth of the last twenty years. Thus, this southern and mountainous Perúhas once again expressed itself legitimately demanding that economic growth benefit them as well with greater equity. This demand is further heightened in a context such as the current one, in which the pandemic has not only left more than 180,000 Peruvian men and women dead, but also an acute economic recession and high levels of unemployment. If living conditions were already precarious in the South and Highlands of the country, the pandemic has made them even more precarious and has left millions of people without formal or informal employment and hungry.

On the other hand, those who voted for Fujimori in this second round cannot be disqualified either. Many people voted out of a real fear of seeing the wealth they have achieved after many years of work and sacrifice diminished, out of fear of a flight of capital and investments, or because they sincerely believe that the current development model is the best for the country. The high vote obtained by the candidate can not only explained by the fear campaign against Castillo.

Will the Fox Above and the Fox Below Finally Be Able To Talk To Each Other?

There are, in Peruvian literature, two great references to the complex historical relationship between the Andean world of the Highlands and the Western world of the big cities of the coast. José María Arguedas described it as stormy, violent and a project still to be built in his unfinished novel «El zorro de arriba y el zorro de abajo» (The Fox From Above and the Fox From Below). On the other hand, Edgardo Rivera Martínez, in his novel «País de Jauja», advocates for a harmonious integration between the Andean and the Western, between the indigenous and the European. What road will we travel after this electoral result that continues to keep the country in suspense?

First, despite the social and political polarization, Peruvians can say that we have an electoral democratic institutionality that the great majority of the country -including the press and the business community- respects. There is widespread social and political consensus that the electoral results, whatever they may be, must be respected.

Secondly, Peruvian civil society has once again shown itself to be very active and vigilant. On the one hand, the initiative of the Churches and other institutions, led by Cardinal Pedro Barreto, to propose to both candidates swear an oath in which they will respect the rule of law and human rights; although it does not assure that they will do so, it implies a greater political cost, both nationally and internationally, if they do not do so. On the other hand, the basically peaceful mobilization of supporters of each candidate, and their representatives.

Thirdly, Pedro Castillo knows that -if he finally wins- he will govern from the beginning with half of the country against him and, in order to do so, he will have to build bridges with different social, political and economic sectors and -among other immediate measures- make announcements to calm the markets and the economic actors. For her part, Keiko Fujimori -if she finally loses- must acknowledge her third and consecutive defeat and not continue to encourage allegations of fraud. As in any electoral process, there are always incidents and irregularities that do not affect the final result, and no international electoral observation mission has warned offraud.

Fourthly, the armed forces have maintained the political neutrality enshrined in the Constitution, in spite of irresponsible and isolated calls for intervention, in response to which the Ministry of Defense issued a communiqué on June 9 reiterating that this type of call «is improper in a democracy». We trust they will continue to do so.

Fifth, we foresee that one of the most critical fronts for the next administration will be the relationship with the new Parliament, made up mostly by right or center-right political parties which, foreseeably, will counterbalance the leftist orientation of a probable government of Pedro Castillo. Although this counterweight is healthy in a democracy, in Perú during the last five years (2016-2021) this counterweight was perverted first into obstructionism and then into presidential vacancy and legislative populism, which resulted in four presidents of the republic in five years and great institutional instability.

Although the whole country hopes that the new Parliament will also build bridges with the President’s administration and exercise moderately its legislative and political control prerogatives, nothing assures that this will be the case. An undesirable but possible scenario is, once again, a sharp confrontation between the Government and the Legislature: censure of ministers, questions of confidence, closure of the Parliament under Article 134 of the Constitution or presidential vacancy due to permanent moral incapacity under Article 113.2 of the Constitution. 

In this regard, it is extremely worrisome that the current Parliament, which is already on its way out, is forcing the approval of certain constitutional reforms through a new and completely irregular legislature. One of these reforms intends to limit the prerogative of the Executive Power to submit a «question of confidence» to the Parliament, which is a mechanism that allows the President to dissolve the Congress under certain conditions provided for in Article 134 of the Constitution.

Such a scenario of confrontation between Powers would be doubly condemnable in the midst of a pandemic from which we have not yet emerged and of an economic recession that challenges the new authorities to recover the millions of jobs that were lost and to lift millions of families out of poverty and hunger. If Castillo wins, it is likely that he will try to confront the Parliament by exploiting the discredit from which this power of the State has been suffering for years and will propose a new Constitution and a Constituent Assembly, supported by social mobilizations. From any point of view, this is a complicated scenario for the foxes from above and the foxes from below.

[1] «Concentrated private press» refers to the fact that in Peru the economic group «El Comercio» controls 80% of the written press and two television channels.

Legal advisor to DPLF and Senior Lecturer at PUCP.

Photo: AP Photo / Martin Mejia

Acerca de Justicia en las Américas

Este es un espacio de la Fundación para el Debido Proceso (DPLF, por sus siglas en inglés) en el que también colaboran las personas y organizaciones comprometidas con la vigencia de los derechos humanos en el continente americano. Aquí encontrará información y análisis sobre los principales debates y sucesos relacionados con la promoción del Estado de Derecho, los derechos humanos, la independencia judicial y el fortalecimiento de la democracia en América Latina. Este blog refleja las opiniones personales de los autores en sus capacidades individuales. Las publicaciones no representan necesariamente a las posiciones institucionales de DPLF o los integrantes de su junta directiva. / This blog is managed by the Due Process of Law Foundation (DPLF) and contains content written by people and organizations that are committed to the protection of human rights in Latin America. This space provides information and analysis on current debates and events regarding the rule of law, human rights, judicial independence, and the strengthening of democracy in the region. The blog reflects the personal views of the individual authors, in their individual capacities. Blog posts do not necessarily represent the institutional positions of DPLF or its board.

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