JUDGING BY its economic and social progress in the 20 years prior to the pandemic, Peru should have been able to draw on a deep well of public confidence when the covid crisis hit. The country’s economy grew every year between 1999 and 2019, and the fruits were widely shared, with Peru’s Gini coefficient — a measure of income inequality — improving from 55.1 to 41.5, one of the best in Latin America, according to the World Bank. The poverty rate fell by two-thirds in the past 15 years, and extreme poverty by five-sixths, to the point where only about 625,000 of Peru’s 32.5 million people now subsist on less than $1.90 per day, down from 3.75 million in 2004.
And yet 2021 is beginning on a note of dangerous political disintegration in Lima, where the first round of presidential voting has narrowed the country’s choices to two extremist candidates: On the left, teacher union leader Pedro Castillo, an advocate of nationalizing industries and rewriting the constitution along socialist lines, finished first with 18.5 percent of the votes; on the right, Keiko Fujimori, daughter of former dictator Alberto Fujimori, finished second with 13 percent of the votes. Mr. Castillo’s party’s platform lauds the approach to press freedom of Lenin and Fidel Castro; for her part, Ms. Fujimori promises a repressive-sounding “demodura,” a neologism that combines the Spanish words for “democracy” and “firm hand.”
Covid is the short-term cause of the Peruvian political class’s loss of legitimacy. For all its progress in the past two decades, Peru lacks high-quality public health and other administrative infrastructure, as a direct result of which the country has recorded one of the highest covid death rates in the world. Economic output fell 11.1 percent last year, with 2 million people falling back into poverty. The structural cause of public discontent, though, is persistent official corruption, coupled with factional squabbling and power plays in Lima, often instigated by Ms. Fujimori. Four living former presidents have faced prosecution. (Mr. Fujimori is serving 25 years for human rights crimes and other abuses.) Another killed himself rather than submit to imminent arrest. The current election process, which concludes on June 6, will give Peru its fifth president in five years. And though both candidates inveigh against corruption, credible accusations of wrongdoing have been lodged against Ms. Fujimori, who is out on bail but faces money-laundering charges, and against the leader of Mr. Castillo’s party, Cuban-trained doctor Vladimir Cerrón.
Peru’s fate is now in the hands of the 69 percent of its electorate that voted for one of the 16 people who ran against Mr. Castillo and Ms. Fujimori. They may take some comfort in the fact that neither gained a majority in Congress; thus, either might be checked by that body. Like Peru’s voters, the United States has few good options, though it must do everything possible to supply vaccines and other assistance that might speed Peru’s recovery from the devastation covid has caused. Even if its next president is demagogic and ideologically extreme, most Peruvians are not, and the Biden administration must remember them as the country navigates this difficult passage.