Pedro Castillo — leader of the Free Peru party, high school teacher, former union leader and self-described Marxist — won the final round of the Peruvian presidential elections on June 6, with 50.1% of the vote.
Castillo was in a run-off against Keiko Fujimori, candidate for the neoliberal, right-wing Popular Force party and daughter of jailed former president Alberto Fujimori. Fujimori attempted to contest the result and refused to concede.
Castillo’s electoral campaign centred on promises to increase funding for health and education; introduce a new constitution drafted by an elected National Constituent Assembly; eradicate illiteracy; implement a national pension system; and introduce anti-corruption measures including limits on salaries for members of Congress.
Castillo garnered most of his support from the rural, marginalised and poorer provinces in the south, as well as the Andean regions, whereas Fujimori dominated in urban areas along the coast.
In departments with high Indigenous populations, such as Cusco and Puno, Castillo gained more than 80% of the vote. This is representative of the traditional economic and class divide based along geographic lines in Peru.
‘No more poor in a rich country’
For decades before the COVID-19 pandemic, Peru experienced strong economic growth, mostly due to its exploitative agricultural and mining sectors. However, the wealth accumulated as a result of the country’s neoliberal development model is concentrated in urban centres such as Lima.
Castillo’s campaign slogan, “No more poor people in a rich country”, tapped into the sentiments of millions of Peruvians who have been ignored and repressed by successive governments for decades.
His promise of a referendum to let Peruvians decide on a constitution — to be drafted by an elected National Constituent Assembly made up of political parties, worker’s representatives and popular organisations — is a significant step forward in the path to democracy.
The current constitution, introduced by Alberto Fujimori in the 1990s helped entrench the neoliberal economic model. It allowed for the privatisation of public services, undermined democracy and concentrated power and wealth in the hands of the economic elite.
Fraud claims baseless
Predictably, after Castillo took the lead in the vote count, Fujimori made claims of electoral fraud, accusing Castillo’s party, Free Peru, of using strategies to “distort and delay the results which reflect the popular will”. This is despite recognition from an inter-American observer mission that the electoral process was carried out correctly and complied with international standards.
Fujimori requested the National Election Jury (JNE) nullify votes from certain electorates — predominantly poor and marginalised areas — where Castillo gained an overwhelming majority. Indigenous groups and unions responded with protests and public statements demanding their votes be respected.
The baseless claims of fraud were a deliberate strategy to delay the results to create tension and uncertainty and to undermine the democratic process. Fujimori is currently facing multiple corruption charges and a 30-year jail sentence if found guilty. Overturning the election result would have provided her with immunity from prosecution.
In the weeks leading up to the election, Grupo El Comercio, a huge media conglomerate and long-standing supporter of right-wing candidates such as Fujimori, launched a deliberate campaign of disinformation to undermine support for Castillo. Given that Grupo El Comercio controls more than 80% of newspapers in Peru, this undoubtedly had an influence on narrowing the previously wide margin of support that Castillo had in the polls following the first round of elections.
Media outlets produced stories aimed at creating fear and uncertainty, such as “predicted” price increases for food and basic items if Castillo was to become president, and an attempt to link Castillo to guerrilla group Shining Path, which is accused of murdering 16 people on May 23.
The National Association of Journalists of Peru (ANP) reported on June 8 that at least 10 journalists were sacked from Canal N and América Televisión — TV stations owned by Grupo El Comercio — after they refused to produce pro-Fujimori coverage. The support of the corporate media, although effective, was ultimately unsuccessful in bringing Fujimori to power.
Challenge to imperialist interests
The election of a leftist candidate in Peru has significant geopolitical ramifications for Latin America. Peru has long been a pillar of neoliberalism in the region, which is an ongoing legacy of Alberto Fujimori’s dictatorship.
Castillo’s pledge to withdraw from the Lima Group — a US-backed multilateral body of Latin American states and Canada formed in 2017 under the guise of assisting the resolution of the “crisis” in Venezuela, but in reality, dedicated to the ousting of President Nicolás Maduro — represents a blow to US and Canadian imperialist interests in Peru.
Free Peru also promised to expel USAID, the US government’s so-called “international development agency” which functions as a key tool for undermining democracy in the region. It has also pledged to close US military bases in Peru.
If followed through, these actions would represent a blow to US imperial interests in Peru and wider Latin America.
Despite the promise of change brought about by Free Peru’s success, a Castillo presidency is faced with the daunting challenges of an ongoing pandemic, a polarised nation, a hostile media, an angered business class and most likely threats from global corporate interests.
According to data from John Hopkins University, Peru has the highest death rate per capita from COVID-19 in the world. If a Castillo presidency is to succeed, it must address the failing health care system, rampant inequality and lack of an adequate welfare system that has left millions of Peruvians at the mercy of COVID-19.
The pressure from the corporate-owned media, a divided populace, business class and corporate interests will make it difficult for Castillo to enact changes without significant opposition from powerful groups. In previous years, leftist candidates have successfully come to power on radical platforms, before succumbing to these pressures and becoming more moderate.
This highlights that the election of a leftist government, although a positive step, is not the primary vehicle for enacting structural change in Peru. The real vehicles for change are the grassroots movements sweeping across Peru and Latin America demanding rights, justice and equality.
Castillo has been described as socially conservative by some leftists for his views on abortion rights, same sex marriage and gender rights. The influence of the Catholic Church in Peru impacts on the views of many working class Peruvians and the country also has extremely restrictive laws on abortion. However, his victory — and the grassroots democratic process to draft a new constitution — provides a base from which feminists, LGBTI and other social movements can continue to mobilise and push for their demands.
In the days leading up to the election, thousands took to the streets in Lima to protest corruption, Fujimorismo and the neoliberal project. After the election, thousands again took to the streets to oppose Fujimori’s attempt to sabotage democracy.
The ongoing rebellions in neighbouring Chile and Colombia indicate the widespread anti-neoliberal sentiment across several regions of Latin America.
Time will tell if the leftist turn brought about by the voices of millions of people, vying for structural change as an alternative future to neoliberal greed, will represent a new chapter in Peru’s history.