Emily Meggs | Latin American Fellow
Peru has endured five years of extreme political instability; five presidents in five years, two congresses, and last year three presidents in one week. Suffice to say, the road to this election has been a tumultuous one with trust eroding in government, amplified by the COVID-19 pandemic. Many argued, perhaps with some veracity, that there was no popular choice in this election, leaving the eventual winner with a weak mandate to enact their agenda.
Following a surprising first ballot, two candidates remained for the runoff. Right-wing candidate Keiko Fujimori, daughter of imprisoned former President Alberto Fujimori, received 13.1 per cent of the vote. Notably, Fujimori is currently under a long-term investigation on corruption and money laundering charges and spent a year in pre-trial detention. During the campaign she violated her parole conditions by communicating with case witnesses, however, was not remanded. If convicted, she faces a thirty-year jail term, but election victory would surely delay the investigation. Her opponent, left-wing candidate, Pedro Castillo, oft-touted as the son of illiterate peasant farmers, won 18.47 per cent of the vote.
Peru’s elections offered two different visions for the Andean nation’s future. Fujimori’s offered the status quo, a continuation of neoliberalism, whilst Castillo promised to address Peru’s rampant inequality and regularly proclaimed, "Never again a poor man in a rich country!"
Billboards lined the Pan-American Highway accusing Castillo of being a communist, and likened a Castillo victory to regimes in Cuba or Venezuela. This tactic is often invoked by right-wing politicians during Latin American elections to sow fear and maintain power, especially states with insurgent pasts like Peru. This vision of communist Peru under Castillo has been propagated by the Peruvian media. Media conglomerate El Comercio, alongside the vast majority of Peru’s media, have repeatedly accused Castillo of being a terrorist and involved with Sendero Luminoso.
These messages were amplified following a massacre two weeks before the election, linked to Sendero Luminoso, but culprit claimed responsibility. Both the media and Fujimori were quick to link Castillo to the massacre, creating an environment of fear and increased violence surrounding his potential presidency. This enabled Fujimori to promulgate her ‘iron fist’ on crime policies, evoking images of her authoritarian father’s presidency in Peru.
Ultimately, 44,058 ballots separated the two candidates. Protests raged for six weeks as Fujimori launched multiple attacks on the election process, unsuccessfully clinging to hope of winning power by undermining the election results. These efforts emboldened members of Peru’s elite and the far right to try and to prevent Castillo from assuming power.
Fujimori’s claims that 200,000 votes were illegally cast and therefore should be annulled were never corroborated, however they served as a mechanism to draw out her electoral defeat. The disputed votes came from rural and indigenous areas of the country, which heavily favoured Castillo. The election results were deemed as fair by the U.S. government, the European Union, and the Organisation of American States. However, Fujimori’s tactics to sow mistrust amongst the Peruvian public have been successful, with 31 per cent believing that the election had been tampered with or compromised. This will cast a shadow over Castillo’s presidency and have implications for future Peruvian elections.
Fujimori refused to concede defeat and held several rallies for supporters, emboldening the extreme right. They attended her rallies wearing bulletproof vests and brandishing mock shields emblazoned with the Cruz Borgoña, exalting their European and perceived superior heritage. Furthermore, over eighty retired military officers sent a letter to the armed forces, urging them to reject the results of the election, essentially a coup d’état. The Peruvian armed forces issued a statement that they would respect the results of the election.
The 2021 election and the rise of the far-right was a catalyst for racial tensions in Peru, with historian José Ragas stating “The Lima elite is not just trying to keep the power – not just that they don’t want to recognise the victory of Pedro Castillo – but they are trying to cancel the rural vote.” Moreover, text exchanges between Fujimori supporters espoused support for famine, death, and a re-introduction of forced sterilisation for poorer Peruvians living in the Sierra, reminiscent of her father’s rule. Following the first ballot, Nobel Prize award-winning author Mario Vargas Llosa questioned whether Castillo’s supporters understood what they were voting for, and likened a Castillo presidency to the current communist regimes, suggesting that Peru would regress.
This is part of the greater societal issues in Peru regarding race and class, which are woven into the nation’s social fabric and exacerbate structural inequality. The rise of the far-right in Peru is terrifying, largely because of their potential to undermine Castillo’s tenure as president and the democratic process. Fujimori’s tactics are reminiscent of Donald Trump’s in 2020, in his inability to concede electoral defeat. However, Peru’s democratic pillars are not as strong as the U.S., and may not be able to brace for this storm of misinformation and extremism.
On July 28, Pedro Castillo was sworn into office as president. The far-right will most likely feel emboldened to act against Castillo and his supporters, especially given 31 per cent of Peruvians believe the election was compromised. Questions remain as to who Castillo is, given his rapid rise, and what sort of agenda he will enact.
Emily Meggs is the Latin American Fellow for Young Australians in International Affairs.