Peru’s Elections on June 6th: An Empty Vote

Keiko Fujimori of the Fuerza Popular [Popular Force] and Pedro Castillo of Peru Libre [Free Peru].

Peruvians face two populists, espousing opposite positions. Their dilemma symbolizes the drama of democracy in Latin America.

By Fabiola Chaimb / / Confidencial

HAVANA TIMES – On Sunday, June 6th a Peru that’s more polarized than ever will decide their course for the next five years. However, the options don’t appear to provide any response to the crisis that has enveloped this country during the recent years. There’s social convulsion, a deterioration of democracy, a context otherwise well known in the region added to the rickety public healthsituation as a result of the pandemic.

On the one hand, there’s a candidate that represents the past and is attempting to wipe out abuses and murky episodes tied to her last name with talk centering on government assistance. On the other, there’s a man who portrays himself as close to the people and wants to overcome the accusations of being a communist and a totalitarian.

These are the candidates on the two extremes: Keiko Fujimori of the Fuerza Popular [Popular Force] and Pedro Castillo of Peru Libre [Free Peru]. They both make grand promises, sealed with expressions such as “from woman to woman” and “a teacher’s word” as if rhetoric would be enough to create a pact of trust with the elector.

Keiko Sofia Fujimori is the daughter of the currently imprisoned ex-president of Peru Alberto Fujimori. Her father is remembered for his 1992 self-coup and his counterterrorism successes. Keiko, who presides over the Fuerza Popular party, is the inheritor of his political project. When her father divorced in 1994, she served as first lady between that year and 2000. She then served in the Peruvian congress from 2006-2011.

This is Keiko’s third attempt to reach the presidency. Since 2018, she’s been under investigation by the Attorney General’s office of Peru for supposed laundering of assets that originated, among other sources with donations from the Brazilian construction company Odebrecht, supposedly to finance her party. She spent 13 months in prison while under investigation.

Keiko’s opponent is Jose Pedro Castillo Terrones. He’s a former elementary school teacher and union leader who leapt into the media spotlight during the 2017 teachers’ strike. Among other things, that labor conflict sought better salaries and a larger share of the budget for his sector. He is backed by Peru Libre, a leftist party founded by the Junin province’s ex-governor Vladimir Cerron. Close to the followers of Venezuelan leader Hugo Chavez Cerron has been sentenced for corruption.

Castilo, is a figure who rose from nowhere. He’s crafted his image around his inseparable white broad-brimmed hat and a pencil in his hands. The candidate defends his record as a former member of the rural patrols, a controversial system of popular self-organized protection against crime.

Following the instability of November 2020, a period when Peru had three presidents in a five-day period, the two parties headed to the polls are far from unifying forces. That’s even more evident, considering that in the first round the two candidates combined votes received barely 32% of the vote.

Further, the campaign has been overshadowed by a May 24 attack attributed to a column of the formerly powerful “Shining Path”. Sixteen people, including 4 children died in this attack, which took place in a remote jungle hamlet.

On Sunday, two polls showed that the distance between the two candidates was shrinking. According to the poll conducted by the Institute for Peruvian Studies, there’s a “technical tie”, with Castillo projected to win 40.3% of the vote and 38.3% for Fujimori. There was still 6.3% undecided, and 2 percent of those polled didn’t support either. Thirteen percent opted for “neither” or leaving the space blank. On the other hand, the last simulated vote held by IPSOS showed the rightest candidate rising in terms of voter intentions, with 48.9% as opposed to 51.1% for the teacher and union leader.

Ana Paula Tavara, political expert from Peru’s Catholic University, offered the Latin American journalism platform Connectas the following observations:

Beyond these statistics, certain complex factors should be understood, in terms of the historic weight of this moment. “Many anti-Fujimori people from the past believe in today’s economic model. It has led them to leave their historic opposition to one side and support Keiko. Similarly, others who opposed Fujimori, are concerned that Castillo’s positions aren’t solvent, but they prefer this uncertainty to returning to the policies espoused by Fujimori.”

Peruvian journalist Alejandra Puente said neither the arguments nor the platforms are of great importance here. “This is an election about fear, basically about voting against the one you fear most. Few people will be voting in favor of something.”

The panorama of the lesser evil is reflected in the posture of Nobel prizewinning writer Mario Vargas Llosa. The author, a well-known political enemy of the former president, surprised the public this time by throwing his second-round support to the candidacy of Keiko Fujimori. 

In his column “Approaching the Abyss” in the Mexican daily “Cronica” he reflects: “I’ve systematically combatted the Fujimori policies, as I have with all the leftist or rightest dictatorships. I believe that in the upcoming elections – those of the second round – Peruvians should vote for Keiko Fujimori, since she represents the lesser of the two evils. With her in power, there are more possibilities for saving our democracy, with Pedro Castillo, I don’t see any.”

Democracy in danger?

In effect, as in other Latin American contexts, the concern centers around the way to maintain the democratic system. According to the 2020 Bertelsmann Transformation Index, levels of democracy have diminished in Latin America and the Caribbean. At the same time, the number of autocrats has reached a historic high, with six such governments: Venezuela, Nicaragua, Cuba, Haiti, Guatemala and Honduras.

Meanwhile, in Peru, at the request of the churches and civil society organizations, the candidates signed a citizens’ proclamation committing themselves to maintaining the democratic institutions if they win power. They also committed to “respecting and defending the fundamental right to life and guaranteeing human rights and press freedom.” Time will tell if they can really resist the temptation to remain in power.

From their opposing ideological shores, Fujimori and Castillo speak of proposals that aren’t entirely convincing.  They don’t have a solid basis for implementation, or they represent an impossible cost for the country. For example, the rightwing candidate speaks of an “oxygen coupon” of 10,000 soles [around US $3,000] for those who have lost a relative to COVID-19. She fails to explain how that could be financed. This week authorities announced that there have actually been 180,000 deaths from the pandemic, nearly double the official tally.

Meanwhile, with the slogan “no more poor people in a rich country”, the union leader proposes among other things to change the “social market economy”, convene a Constitutional Assembly, increase the budget for agriculture and defend and conserve the environment, in opposition to “the neoliberal model”.

“We have two candidates that don’t represent us. I don’t support Keiko or Castillo, because I don’t feel that they’re going to guarantee me the economic stability I need. Despite that my vote was decided after seeing the last presidential debate. Even so, I’m clear that neither of the two is what we Peruvians want,” Paula Condori, a young resident of Tacna, Peru, stated to Conectas.

Peru faces not only a political weariness and uncertainty, but also the raging pandemic, which has caused them the highest per capita death toll in the world. In this complex context, an empty vote goes hand in hand with desperation. On June 6, no matter who reaches power, yet another cycle of extreme polarization will begin. A new episode, in which, as so many other times on the subcontinent, democracy could be the biggest loser.

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