Peru: Voters take to the polls amid a political and public-health crisis

Peru: Voters take to the polls amid a political and public-health crisis

On April 11th, Peru held the first round of its presidential elections, after which candidates Keiko Fujimori and Pedro Castillo emerged in the lead. The second and final round of Peru’s presidential election will take place this Sunday. Whoever is ultimately successful at becoming Peru’s new President will face institutional challenges exacerbated by a public-health crisis. 

The Rise of Castillo

Prior to the first round of elections, Yohyn Lescano, of the Popular Action Party, was leading in the polls. However, candidates Pedro Castillo and Keiko Fujimori emerged as the leading candidates in the first round of elections. Castillo secured an impressive and unexpected 15% of votes, while Fujimori came in second with 10% of votes. 

Castillo of the ‘Free Peru’ party is an ex-teacher, who despite launching his political career in 2002, has never held public office. His political ascent has been fuelled by support from rural voters who are disillusioned with traditional politics and the political class due to institutional corruption. Castillo’s campaign seeks to paint Fujimori as ‘the boss of a criminal empire’, in reference to her time in prison, her corruption allegations and her father’s legacy of corruption. In this sense, Castillo’s anticorruption campaign represents a rejection of the traditional political establishment, which the Fujimori political dynasty has come to embody. 

Castillo’s campaign promises include cutting the salaries of public servants, constitutional reform and nationalisation. These policies would represent a watering down of the free-market practices that Fujimori supports, and that have come to be synonymous with the corruption and human rights violations that characterised her father’s presidency. 

Corruption, political polarization, and the economic impact of the Government’s pandemic response have all played a role in undermining the trust of the Peruvian public in their political system. This is evidenced in the fact that no political candidates secured a majority of 50% of votes, which indicates that the electorate has become highly fragmented. The next president will therefore enter office with a unique challenge to conventional politics. 

What are the challenges that Peruvian politics is facing?

Corruption scandals

A large number of Peru’s politicians have been accused of corruption in the last decade. The most notorious case is Alberto Fujimori, Peru’s President from 1990 to 2000, who has been accused of bribery and abuses of power. Most notably, he was accused of human rights violations, after executing 15 innocent people in 1991, and later his involvement in the disappearance of a professor and 9 students in 1992 at the hands of a paramilitary group controlled by the Peruvian army. In 2009 Fujimori was sentenced to 25 years of prison. Likewise, another ex-president, Alejandro Toledo, took $31 million in bribes from Odebrecht and was involved in money laundering with a Costa Rican company. His successor, Alan Garcia, committed suicide when the police came to arrest him for also taking bribes from Odebrecht. Other former presidents Pedro Pablo Kuczynski and Ollanta Humala are currently being investigated for similar offences. More recently, Vizcarra, who served as president from 2018 to 2020, was impeached by the Peruvian congress for taking bribes.

Public opinion reflects how deeply concerned Peruvians are with corruption. 95% of citizens believe their politicians are corrupt and 61% believe that corruption is one of the most acute problems that the country faces. The widespread belief that Peruvian politicians are corrupt undermines trust in the political system. According to polls, there is a widespread perception that corruption and self-serving motivations underpin the behaviour of all Peru’s politicians. 

Institutional Crisis

In conjunction with corruption scandals, the lack of a parliamentary majority has fuelled continuous conflict between the executive and the legislature. In 2016, Pedro Pablo Kuczinski was elected president with a minority in Parliament. Kuczinski’s presidency was characterized by tense relations between the two branches of Government, which culminated in two no-confidence votes following accusations that the President was involved in a corruption scandal. This resulted in his resignation in 2018. Under the same conditions, President Vizcarra, who did not have a strong majority, was removed by the Congress.   

The never-ending conflict between the executive and legislative powers undermines the perception of the political system in the eyes of the electorate. There is now a belief that opposition parties use corruption allegations to remove the ruling party from office. The continuous political tensions between the parties fuel a culture of political uncertainty.

Covid-19 in Peru

Peru is currently suffering the second wave of Covid-19 during which deaths have reached over 56,000. As a result, the health-care system is at risk of collapsing. 

Despite being one of the first countries to impose lockdown measures in response to the pandemic, the strict lockdown measures proved insufficient when cases spiked and ICU bed availability became scarce. The failure of lockdown measures has been attributed to the Government’s inability to regulate or impose restrictions on the informal economy, which accomodates 71% of Peruvian workers. Informal workers, who have no stable income and operate outside labor law, often work in crowded markets and train stations, where social distancing guidelines are either not possible or not adhered to. Although President Vizcarra provided a bonus for these workers and vulnerable households, it was impossible for this financial support to reach all those that needed it, as only 38% of Peruvians have a bank account. In addition, Vizcarra was criticized for creating unnecessary agglomerations in banks. As a result, inequality and food insecurity have risen since the start of the pandemic. 

The economy suffered a depression as a result of measures implemented during the pandemic, contracting by 11% last year and leaving more than 2 million Peruvians unemployed. Many Peruvians fled the capital to escape the virus, but soon found the Government unwilling to provide the financial support they needed to help them survive the financial burden of unemployment. The Peruvian Government’s inability to form economic policies that would protect its people from the worst of the pandemic’s economic hit has come to symbolise the Peruvian’s Government’s broader failure to understand and represent its peopleIt is the Government’s inability to cater to the interests of the electorate that is bolstering the rise of candidates like Castillo.

Since the vaccination programme began in March, it has been overshadowed by a Covid-related political scandal. It was discovered that ex-president Vizcarra and his wife had received the Covid-19 vaccine months before the official vaccination campaign started, along with dozens of public servants. This scandal has further exacerbated distrust of elected politicians.

Will the political situation improve after the elections?

Since traditional politics has lost its appeal, it is unlikely that any party will gain a majority and dissolve the state of political polarisation in the near future. The continued surfacing of corruption cases involving politicians is likely to exacerbate distrust in the political system and possibly lead to the emergence of political outsiders or extremists within the Peruvian politics. The Covid-19 crisis has acted as a catalyst for extant political challenges. 

Whether Keiko Fujimori or Pedro Castillo win the second round remains to be seen. What is certain however, is that neither will be able to form a majority in Congress which will make the governing process difficult for the new president.


Categories: Latin America, Politics

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