By Sara Lahti
Peru has endured a turbulent five-year period, cycling through four presidents and two congresses, with a political system that many insist serves the interests of corporations and officials rather than those of regular people. Since the last general elections resulted in a divided government five years ago, the country has seen continuous clashes between the legislative and executive branches.
Pedro Pablo Kuczynski won the 2016 elections against Keiko Fujimori, daughter of jailed former leader Alberto Fujimori, by less than a half percentage point. His presidency was, however, almost instantly compromised due to evidence of links to Brazilian construction giant Odebrecht. The fallout from Latin America’s biggest corruption scandal engulfed leaders from Mexico to Argentina, and Kuczynski was no exception. Soon after, videos of government operators, including a Minister of State, attempting to buy political support were also leaked. Kuczynski announced his resignation the next day, just 19 months into his five-year mandate.
First in line of succession was Martín Vizcarra, sworn in as the new president in March 2018. Throughout his tenure, Vizcarra remained independent from political parties and promoted several anti-corruption reforms within the government, including trying to reduce parliamentary immunity and ban congressional re-election – both of which angered Congress. Vizcarra had a tougher counteroffensive than Kuczynski, rapidly achieving one of the highest approval ratings of his generation. In mid-2019, he demanded Congress grant him a vote of confidence on a mandate to reform the selection process for the judges of Peru’s top court. When they refused, Vizcarra brought a different procedural rule into play and legally dissolved Congress, demanding new congressional elections in January 2020.
This move would, however, have unexpected consequences. The long and exhausting strife within the government branches had left its mark, and the Peruvian people wanted their state to offer improved public services and fight against inequality instead of quarreling over power and personal gains. The outcome of the January congressional elections reflected this dissatisfaction, as Peruvians punished their political parties by voting for newcomers and unexpected political movements. Essentially: the greater a party’s presence on the political arena of the past years, the worse were their chances of making it into the new Congress.
Still, the 2020 Congress was no better than its predecessor. The seats were brimmed with populists, theocrats and autocrats that created problem after problem for Vizcarra. In May, speaker of Congress and its main instigator Manuel Merino made his first effort to impeach Vizcarra. The motion failed but Merino did not give up, because Vizcarra was also under investigation for alleged corruption while serving as regional governor in 2014. After a plea bargain testimony claiming Vizcarra received bribes was leaked, Merino tried again, arguing that Vizcarra, who had not even been charged, was morally incapable of leading the country. And this time, he had the rest of Congress on his side. Vizcarra gave in, accepting the Congress vote without taking any legal action to counter it. ‘Today I am going home’, he said in his final speech as president on November 9 last year.
Expectedly, Peruvians took to the streets. An unpopular Congress throwing out a popular president, especially when 68 of 130 congressmen were also accused of corruption, provoked violent protests all over the country. Many saw the impeachment as a power grab by Merino, who was next in line as president given that there were no vice presidents left after the Kuczynski crisis. The protests were the largest Peru had seen in two decades, causing Merino to resign from the presidency just five days after taking office. Current President Francisco Sagasti was soon voted in by his fellow congressmen to hold the position until the 2021 elections.
And so, four presidents and two congresses later, this year’s presidential elections come at a moment many are calling one of the lowest points in Peru’s young democracy. The candidates heading toward a highly polarized run-off on June 6 are Pedro Castillo and Keiko Fujimori, who received 19 and 13.4 percent of the votes respectively in the first round.
Up until a month ago, former teacher and union activist Castillo was barely known, but he rapidly managed to draw large crowds in rural areas and among the most vulnerable population with his far-left politics. Castillo lives in the poverty-stricken highland region of Cajamarca, and is often seen campaigning on horseback with a cowboy hat. He has a skillful populist touch, promising radical change and threatening to erase the ‘comfortable middle class’ of Lima. Castillo’s supporters claim he represents the big change they have long been looking for but failed to find in traditional politicians. In the capital, however, Castillo comes across as an outlandish figure, with many worrying about his communist connections and support of Venezuelan dictator Nicolás Maduro.
Fujimori, on the other hand, is a far-right opposition leader and considered one of the most toxic political figures in Peru. Her father ruled as an autocrat in the 1990s, and anti-Fujimorismo has been a dominant political current ever since. It is her third time heading to the presidential run-off, and this year she vows to stop pandemic lockdowns and crack down on crime. Fujimori has been jailed three times and is currently under investigation for alleged money laundering, causing concerns among the population. Like Castillo, she has a lot of work to do.
For many Peruvians, being forced to choose between these two extremes is painful, especially after having just suffered a five-year political disaster. The run-off is likely to become a battle between Lima (Fujimori) and the regions (Castillo), with a majority voting for the least worst option rather than for a candidate they actually believe in. Whoever wins is expected to have the weakest mandate of any elected president in the country’s modern history, and will be bound to handle dual economic and health crises destined to shape Peru for years to come.
Sara Lahti is a BSc student in Political Science with a passion for international affairs and sustainable peace. She previously spent two years in South America and has a particular interest in the continent’s politics and development.