Shock lead for left in Peruvian elections

By Mike Phipps

Can there be a left wing outcome to Peru’s political turmoil? The first round of the country’s presidential election on April 11th offers grounds for optimism.

In what one analyst described as “a staggering upset”, Pedro Castillo, the candidate of the left wing party Peru Libre (Free Peru) topped the poll in a crowded field with 19% of the vote.

Only a month ago, Castillo was polling a maximum of 5% in opinion polls. A teacher who rose to prominence in a national strike four years ago, Castillo performed well in the candidates’ debates this year. His party is not well known and describes itself as Marxist and Leninist. It supports public ownership, increased funding for education and constitutional reform and draws support from poorer, rural areas in particular.

In the second round of the presidential election in June, Castillo will be up against Keiko Fujimori, the daughter of Alberto Fujimori, the authoritarian who ruled Peru through the 1990s before fleeing the country amid a corruption scandal and human rights abuses. He was later prosecuted for crimes against humanity and jailed. His daughter is the leader of the right-wing party Fuerza Popular (Popular Force).

Keiko Fujimori has also done time in prison for her role in what the US Department of Justice called “the largest foreign bribery case in history”.  She polled only 13% of the vote in the first round of the presidential election. Her unpopularity has been compounded by her public defence of her father’s record of state-sponsored extra-judicial killings and her admiration for Brazil’s President Bolsonaro.

However, it is expected that she will pick up support as the only conservative candidate. The Nobel prize-winning author Mario Vargas Llosa, who ran for the Peruvian presidency in 1990 and was beaten by Keiko Fujimori’s father, has already announced his support.   The newly elected Congress, meanwhile, is dominated by right wing parties.

Castillo and Peru Libre face an uphill task to win in the second round. The left is deeply split, and as was underlined by the recent Ecuadorean presidential election, in which the neoliberal candidate won, there is no guarantee that these divisions will be easily overcome.  Castillo, for example, is socially conservative on issues of abortion, gender and sexual orientation, which will alienate potential supporters. These issues were championed by Verónika Mendoza, a progressive politician, who was thought to be the left’s best hope until the first round upset.

Whoever wins in June, the political turbulence of recent months looks set to continue. Last November, thousands of Peruvians took to the streets against what many called a “legislative coup” against the popular anti-corruption president, Martin Vizcarra.

Vizcarra, who took over in 2018, was impeached out of office by Congress at the second attempt on the spurious pretext of “moral incapacity”. A week later, his successor was forced to resign following outrage at the death of two protesters, the result of fierce state repression. Peru’s current president, Francisco Sagasti, has been in office only since November 2020.

The protests against the Congressional coup were the largest in twenty years. The authorities’ violent response, in which hundreds were injured, was widely condemned. Sagasti was forced to appoint a new police chief and sack more than a dozen top officers.

In December, agricultural workers mounted protests for better pay and job stability. After one was shot dead, miners joined the protests and the Congress was forced to withdraw a proposed agrarian law.

Mike Phipps is editor of the Iraq Occupation Focus e-newsletter, available at book For the Many: Preparing Labour for Power was published by OR Books in 2018.

Image: Protests in Lima, Peru, November 12th, 2020. Source: Author: correliebre, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license.

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