Peru: Leftist candidate challenges neoliberalism

Issue 
Pedro Castillo greets supporters. Photo: @PedroCastilloTe/Twitter

The first round of the Peruvian presidential elections took place on April 11.

The front-runners are left-wing candidate Pedro Castillo, who won 18.9% of the vote, followed by right-wing candidate Keiko Fujimori with 13.4%. As neither candidate gained 50% of the popular vote required to automatically win the election, a run-off election between Castillo and Fujimori will occur on June 6.

Castillo’s popularity came as a surprise to many observers, considering he was polling at 2% in March.

Together for Peru candidate, Veronika Mendoza — also campaigning on a left platform — won 7.9% of the vote, despite having performed well in televised debates.

Nicolas Allen, writing in Jacobin, said Mendoza “failed to make important inroads in the nations marginalised south and centre. It was there — in the selva y sierra, the historically neglected and stigmatised hinterland — that Castillo not only outperformed Mendoza, but all other centre-left options.”

Castillo, the leader of the Free Peru party, is a self-described Marxist, high school teacher and former union leader. He came to prominence in 2017 after leading a national teachers’ strike to demand improved wages and funding for education.

Castillo’s Free Peru party describes itself as left-wing and socialist, and embraces Marxism and Mariáteguism. In the 1920s and 30s, Peruvian Marxist José Carlos Mariátegui, developed a theory of socialism that took account of the Peruvian experience and the imperialist plunder of Latin America.

Free Peru’s program (Plan de Gobierno) includes allocating 10% of gross domestic product to the health and education sectors, respectively; introducing a new Constitution drafted by an elected National Constituent Assembly made up of political parties, workers’ representatives and popular organisations; eradicating illiteracy; universal public health care; nationalisation of key extractive industries; a national pension system; and introducing anti-corruption measures including limits on salaries for members of Congress.

Unsurprisingly, Castillo has been the target of smear campaigns by corporate-owned media outlets, to generate fear. Castillo has been labeled a terrorist, and accused of planning to steal money from Peruvians who need it most.

Corruption

Given the historical pattern of corruption among Peru’s previous governments, the media is tapping into a genuine fear, in order to undermine support for Castillo.

Right-wing candidate Keiko Fujimori is the daughter of former President Alberto Fujimori, who is currently serving a 25-year jail sentence for crimes against humanity, embezzlement and phone-tapping opposition politicians and journalists.

Alberto Fujimori’s ten years in office were mired in rampant corruption and horrific acts of violence against those opposed to his government. Keiko Fujimori has been jailed three times in the past few years, and is currently on bail awaiting trial on multiple corruption charges. Her disregard for justice or democracy is highlighted by her intention to pardon her father for his crimes, if elected.

Fujimori has repeatedly expressed her intention to preserve the current neoliberal development model. This includes the Constitution introduced by her father in the 1990s, which allowed for the privatisation of public services, undermined democracy and concentrated power and wealth in the hands of the economic elite.

She continues to espouse her father’s ideology of Fujimorismo, defined by its social conservatism and neoliberalism. While Fujimori has experienced a marked decline in approval ratings in recent years, the ongoing presence of Fujimorismo continues to be a threat to democracy in Peru.

COVID-19

The elections are occurring within the context of the COVID-19 health crisis. Peru is one of the worst-affected countries, in part due to the actions of successive neoliberal governments as well as Peru’s position in the global capitalist system.

Chronic underinvestment in healthcare has resulted in a system that is unequipped to deal with the challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic. Peru is currently experiencing a second wave of COVID-19 cases, placing its already collapsing healthcare system under further stress.

Other factors which have contributed to the current crisis include the precarious nature of work, a lack of policies aimed at protecting those working in the informal economy (roughly 90% of Peru’s urban population work in the informal sector), and the absence of an adequate welfare system.

Peru’s integration into the global capitalist system through the exploitation of its natural resources, such as copper, has cemented low wages, enduring underdevelopment and Indigenous dispossession.

Opposition to this development model — often expressed through strikes and protests — is met with brutal repression and human rights abuses.

The Peruvian government’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic has helped foment a widespread distrust of the political elite and the neoliberal development model.

Under the guise of fighting COVID-19, the armed forces and police have been granted powers exempting them from liability for any injury or death caused while enforcing quarantine measures.

The mining sector was granted status as an “essential service”, forcing miners to continue working even during a militarised lockdown. As a result, mining companies continued to boost their profits, while mines became hubs for COVID-19 infection, with many thousands of workers testing positive.

Political instability

Peru has not had a democratically elected President since former President Pedro Pablo Kuczynski resigned in 2018, following multiple corruption scandals, including allegations of vote-buying.

Since then, there have been three presidents appointed by Constitutional Succession, contributing to the country’s ongoing political instability. All former presidents that are still alive are either facing investigation, wanted or in jail for corruption.

Huge protests broke out at end of last year across the country, sparked by the removal of then-President Martín Vizcarra through what many labelled a “legislative coup”, designed to stop Vizcarra’s political reform and anti-corruption campaigns.

Although triggered by the ousting of Vizcarra, the protests were more broadly against the legacy of neoliberal policies that have eroded human rights, living conditions and caused huge inequality.

Castillo appears to have harnessed the widespread anti-neoliberal sentiment. A poll for the second round of presidential elections conducted by CPI, a Peruvian market research and public opinion company, indicates 35.5% support for Castillo and 23.1% for Fujimori.

The National Election Jury plans to organise four debates between the presidential candidates before the second round of elections.

Castillo’s support highlights the building anti-neoliberal sentiment among Peruvians, and the opportunity for grassroots movements to demand change. It is crucial that the international community shows solidarity with those in Peru fighting for democracy and genuine socialist change.

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