The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

In Peru’s pandemic election, a rural schoolteacher challenges a political dynasty

Supporters of presidential candidate Pedro Castillo gather Tuesday on the Plaza San Martín in Lima, Peru. The banner reads, “No more poor people in a rich country.” (Michael Robinson Chavez/The Washington Post)

LIMA, Peru — The front-runner in Peru’s presidential election on Sunday is a rural schoolteacher from a Marxist-Leninist party who has promised to rewrite the constitution.

His opponent is the heir to a right-wing political dynasty, a former first lady dogged by corruption charges who would be the first ethnic Japanese woman elected to lead any nation.

The ideological chasm between first-time candidate Pedro Castillo and political veteran Keiko Fujimori is a study in pandemic-era politics in South America, a continent reeling from soaring poverty and escalating class tension as lockdowns linger and coronavirus cases spike.

In Peru, where a revised coronavirus death toll this week revealed the highest death rate per capita in the world, pandemic anxieties have exacerbated years of mounting disgust with a corrupt political class, fueling extreme polarization. The country cycled through three presidents in nine days last year. Now the political vortex and economic distress have yielded an outside-the-box, left-wing front-runner: Pedro Castillo, a 51-year-old farmer and teacher who says he will make reducing poverty and inequality his top priority.

“People have lost confidence in the state and the parties that run it,” said Oscar Maúrtua, a former foreign minister. “The political turmoil of the past few years and now the pandemic have created a level of exasperation we have not seen before.”

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In Latin America, the region of the world that suffered the sharpest contraction in economic growth last year, Peru’s election offers a test of the political clout of the anti-government discontent now returning to the streets in several countries. Colombia, in particular, has been rocked by weeks of violent protests. In Chile, long the free-market model for the region, a communist last month won the coveted job of mayor of Santiago.

“What is most challenging for Latin America is that democratic political systems that are supposed to mediate political proposals and help temper more radical voices are not working,” said Jo-Marie Burt, a political scientist at George Mason University who studies Peru. “People are disenchanted.”

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On Monday, Peru revised its official coronavirus death toll from 69,234 to more than 180,000. But if the pandemic made things worse in this country of 32 million, the electorate’s frustration, built on a history of bizarre political scandals that have seemed at times to veer into magical realism, goes back much further.

Three of Peru’s past presidents are under arrest for corruption, one is awaiting trial and another, Alan García, died by suicide in 2019 as police were attempting to arrest him. Former president Martín Vizcarra, who was impeached in November by lawmakers seeking to shut down his fight against corruption, has been banned by Congress from holding public office for 10 years — despite winning a seat in the body in April as the top vote-getter.

Fujimori, 46, is the daughter of former president Alberto Fujimori, who was hailed in the 1990s for staring down the violent Shining Path guerrilla movement but later reviled as a corrupt and ruthless autocrat. In 2000, he fled to his family’s native Japan after attempting to steal an election. He eventually returned to Peru and was arrested on charges that linked him to death squads. His daughter, who served as his first lady after her parents’ divorce, has vacillated between denouncing him and embracing him, depending on the political winds.

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She now says she would pardon her father, who is back in jail after the Supreme Court overturned an earlier pardon. He’ll be 83 on July 28, Peru’s independence holiday and inauguration day. She’s making her third bid to become Peru’s first female president, after finishing second in 2011 and 2016.

Castillo’s camp has sought to paint her as the boss of a criminal empire. She has been imprisoned three times, and granted release most recently in April 2020, in an alleged money-laundering scandal connected to her first failed presidential bid. Peruvian prosecutors are seeking to put her in prison for more than 30 years on separate charges including embezzlement and election fraud.

In one case, the former head of Peru’s largest bank, Banco de Crédito, said he gave her $3.6 million in cash, sometimes in briefcases, sometimes in big envelopes, for the 2011 race.

Fujimori has denied any wrongdoing and claims political persecution. If she wins the presidency, she would be exempt from prosecution for those five years, but cases against more than 30 co-defendants would continue.

Cecilia Taboada, a food vendor in the southern city of Moquegua, is leaning toward voting for Fujimori anyway.

“She is prepared for the job,” Taboada said. “And maybe, as a woman, she will have a better understanding of what needs to be done.”

The big surprise has been the stunning rise of Castillo. He’s never held public office. His only national exposure came during a teachers strike in 2017.

He has campaigned with the wide-brimmed straw hat worn by country people in his highland community. Among those opposed to his candidacy, classism has bubbled just below the surface. Social media has filled with criticism that a “peasant” cannot lead the country.

Castillo has refused in debates to identify himself with an ideological doctrine, but he does embrace a much greater economic role for the state and has said he would nationalize some resources, such as natural gas, and bolster public companies. He wants to renegotiate tax contracts with mining companies, the motor of Peru’s economy. He reiterated in a debate this week that two controversial copper projects that have long been opposed by farmers would not happen on his watch.

His big issue is a call for a constituent assembly that would rewrite the country’s 1993 constitution.

The Fujimori campaign says Castillo avoids labels because the only one that fits is communist.

Fujimori says a Castillo victory would ensure that Peru follows socialist Venezuela into a crippling humanitarian disaster. She has jumped on a secret recording of a Castillo colleague saying his Peru Libre party would never leave office if elected. She has sought to link her opponent to Shining Path, the remnants of which allegedly massacred 16 people, including women and children, in the central jungle last week.

Castillo led in four of the five most recent polls. Fujimori led in one. All results were within the margin of error.

Peru Libre’s platform, which was written before Castillo became the candidate, and some of the party’s newly elected lawmakers have provided the Fujimori camp with ammunition. It identifies the party with Marxism and praises Venezuela.

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Gonzalo Alegria, an economist and international banker advising Castillo, says Castillo isn’t looking to upend the nation’s free-market system.

“Pedro [Castillo] is not a communist,” he said. He said Castillo’s team is looking at economic models in countries from Denmark to Singapore, not Venezuela. “If anything, he is a moderate,” Alegria said. “A new constitution is about addressing corruption and creating a more modern state.”

Castillo tried to put fears to rest in the May 30 debate.

“It is a lie that we are going to close your bodega, that we are going to confiscate your house,” he said “Those of us who work know how to defend property.”

Faiola reported from Miami.

Read more:

[Peru had three presidents in one week. Now it has four months to fix the system.]

[Peru took early, aggressive measures against the coronavirus. It’s still suffering one of Latin America’s largest outbreaks.]

[Corruption scandals have ensnared 3 Peruvian presidents. Now the whole political system could change.]