In polarizing election, Peru hears echoes of the past

Sebastian Castaneda/Reuters
Peru's right-wing candidate Keiko Fujimori and socialist candidate Pedro Castillo wave at the end of their debate ahead of the June 6 runoff election, in Arequipa, Peru, May 30, 2021.
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Peru’s presidential runoff is kicking up dust of its bloody, not-so-distant past, as a right-wing candidate faces off against a far-left politician. On the table are the very issues that have torn Peru apart since the 1980s – terrorism, corruption, inequality – supercharged by a pandemic that has battered the economy and sharply increased poverty.

But the left-right divisions played up during the campaign – that a leftist like former teacher Pedro Castillo will put Peru on a path like Venezuela’s, or that Keiko Fujimori, the daughter of a now-imprisoned former president, will lead Peru with an autocratic hand – have overpowered actual policy proposals. “What concerns me is that people could come to the conclusion that things won’t change with elections,” says Giovanna Peñaflor Guerra, a political analyst.

Why We Wrote This

Peru’s polarizing presidential election is calling up violent memories of the past, despite nearly two decades of peace and reconciliation. Overcoming these divides is key to putting the nation on a positive path forward.

If the country cannot move on quickly from the bruising election, with the losing party promptly acknowledging the victor, observers say Peru’s challenges could deepen, with possible repeats of the drama of the past few years: presidential impeachments, shuttered legislatures, and instability.

“The polarization is so extreme that people will end up voting for the candidate who scares them less. ... [It] could create even more instability,” says Luis Benavente, executive director of a Lima polling firm.

Peruvian voters face a stark choice when they cast their ballots in the June 6 presidential runoff between a left-wing rural school teacher and the daughter of a right-wing imprisoned president. Analysts worry the sharp divisions emerging in this neck-and-neck campaign could spell a bumpy road ahead for Peru, regardless of the victor. 

The campaign has dredged up the country’s troubled history of corruption, inequality, and terrorism, creating an eery feeling of déjà vu from one of Peru’s most turbulent modern periods. That sense of unease has been supercharged by the pandemic, which has exposed government failures to improve social services, despite two decades of economic growth.

Throughout the 1980s and ’90s, Peru suffered both guerrilla warfare and government-backed human rights abuses, in attempts to control the violence. A Truth and Reconciliation Commission reported in 2003 that nearly 70,000 people died or disappeared in political violence, with two Marxist guerrilla groups responsible for half those deaths – primarily, the Shining Path. Just last month the Shining Path was blamed for the massacre of 16 people in Peru’s central jungle. Stereotypes still link leftists with the nation’s violent past, and Keiko Fujimori, the candidate on the right, hints that terrorism would come surging back if her opponent wins. Candidate Pedro Castillo, on the left, says his opponent is little more than a corrupt crime boss, ready to line the pockets of wealthy people at the expense of poor people.

Why We Wrote This

Peru’s polarizing presidential election is calling up violent memories of the past, despite nearly two decades of peace and reconciliation. Overcoming these divides is key to putting the nation on a positive path forward.

The name-calling and imagery of the past not only spark fear on both sides, but has observers increasingly worried that polarization could deepen Peru’s more recent political crisis. The past few years have seen a revolving-door presidency, and if it continued, would make healing divides all the more difficult.

“The polarization is so extreme that people will end up voting for the candidate who scares them less. ... [It] could create even more instability,” says Luis Benavente, executive director of Vox Populi Consultoría, a consulting and polling firm in Lima.

Supporters of Popular Force party presidential candidate Keiko Fujimori hold a photo of her father, former President Alberto Fujimori, at her closing campaign rally in Lima, Peru, June 3, 2021.

In-and-out presidents

Peru’s politics have been in disarray for years. Of the country’s most recent democratically elected presidents, Alberto Fujimori – Ms. Fujimori’s father – is in jail for human rights violations, and two are under house arrest for corruption. One ex-president is waiting to stand trial on a money laundering case, and a fifth, Alan García, killed himself in 2019 to avoid arrest in a corruption investigation.

Last fall, Peru had three presidents over the course of one week. Former President Martín Vizcarra was impeached and his successor lasted only a few days, forced out after pro-democracy rallies. Interim President Francisco Sagasti took office last November, with his term slated to expire at the end of July. Still, Congress has held two censure votes to oust him, the last one in early May.

Supreme Court judges, members of Congress, mayors, governors, and even Ms. Fujimori have been jailed in corruption investigations. She’s alleged to have received more than $17 million in undeclared contributions during her 2011 presidential run, charges she calls political persecution.

The pandemic has made corruption all the more real for Peruvians. Hospitals lacked beds and oxygen when COVID-19 arrived, despite administrations’ assertions that investment in health and social services was strong. Remote students and workers struggled with patchy telecom infrastructure, and in-person classes aren’t expected to resume until March 2022.

Public frustration was spurred, in part, by the idea that 20 years of growth had supposedly established a robust middle class. Yet over the past year, poverty levels increased to 30%, and unemployment more than doubled, remaining above 15%. Inequality, which fueled much of the insurgency of the 1980s and ’90s, has worsened. And more than 180,000 Peruvians have died of COVID-19, the highest death rate in the world.

The Castillo and Fujimori campaigns have different ideas about dealing with the pandemic – and just about everything else – but key messages about growing the economy, and improving public services like education and water, have been lost in the sea of political attacks.

The lack of focus on the content of each candidate’s platform could have long-term consequences, says Giovanna Peñaflor Guerra, a political analyst who runs the Imasen marketing firm.

“What concerns me is that people could come to the conclusion that things won’t change with elections,” she says. That could lead to less political participation – and less faith in democracy as a whole.

Mr. Castillo proposes increasing the role of the state in the economy, giving it a much bigger role in natural resource extraction, energy production, and industry. His government says it would negotiate higher taxes for mining and other sectors, like electricity. He rejects allegations his government would confiscate private property.

Ms. Fujimori would also like more revenue from natural resources, but her plan calls for voluntary contributions. She says she would expand social programs and ramp up infrastructure, paying for programs with more thorough tax collection, not higher taxes.

Guadalupe Pardo/AP
Free Peru party presidential candidate Pedro Castillo carries a large, mock pencil during his closing campaign rally in Lima, Peru, June 3, 2021. The former rural school teacher will face rival candidate Keiko Fujimori in a June 6 election.

More political battles ahead? 

The tone of the campaign has split the electorate. Ms. Fujimori’s backers worry that a Castillo victory would make Peru look more like crisis-ridden Venezuela. Mr. Castillo’s supporters worry Ms. Fujimori’s embrace of the status quo would mean continued corruption – and possibly a throwback to her father’s authoritarianism.

A recent poll by the firm CPI has Ms. Fujimori leading by double-digits in Lima. But Mr. Castillo is up, and by huge margins, in other zones, with close to 80% support in the southern and central highlands. Gonzalo Banda, who teaches political science in the southern city of Arequipa, says the groundswell of support for Mr. Castillo is linked to an undercurrent of racism and classism in the election.

“People voting for Castillo feel as though the attacks against him [and] the way he speaks or dresses, are [reflective of] the way they are often treated,” Mr. Banda says. Mr. Castillo typically dons an oversize cowboy hat and has arrived at campaign events on horseback. “They say he is ridiculed for not what he says, but how he says it.”

That’s why Hugo González, a small-business owner in Arequipa, is in Mr. Castillo’s camp. “I’m voting for Castillo not for his policies, but because he has been mistreated by the people with power,” he says.

But for Fernando Chávez, a sales executive in Lima, a vote for Ms. Fujimori is a way to rise above divisive messaging. He says he will vote for her simply in order to stop Mr. Castillo, someone who he says represents a return to past, failed ideas. “I don’t want Peru to be the next Cuba or Venezuela. Castillo’s message is one of division,” he says.

The polarization of this election could create gridlock just as the country is emerging from the second wave of the pandemic, says Fernando Tuesta Soldevilla, a political science professor in Lima. 

“I fear that the loser may not accept the results if they are close. The polarization has reached levels of irresponsibility,” he says.

The best outcome would be a clear victory by either candidate, says Mr. Benavente. And, while they might not like it, the losing team needs to promptly recognize the winning ticket.

If not, he says foreign investment will likely diminish and unemployment will remain high. He and other pollsters caution that a protracted fight, with cries of fraud, could even affect the COVID-19 vaccination effort that is just starting to show results.

“The next government takes over with the coffers empty, but with a need to spend on the pandemic and reactivation [of the economy],” Mr. Benavente says.

“This will not happen if the political battles continue after the voting.”

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