The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Unproven fraud claims delay election result, challenge Peru’s fragile democracy

Peruvian presidential candidate Pedro Castillo addresses supporters from the headquarters of his Free Peru party in Lima on June 15. (Sebastian Castaneda/Reuters)

LIMA, Peru — If ever a presidential administration needed a smooth transition, it’s that of Pedro Castillo, the leftist schoolteacher who will apparently be Peru’s next leader.

With no experience in public office, he eschewed policy advisers during both rounds of the Andean nation’s presidential election — even as he made improbable, apparently spontaneous campaign promises ranging from banning imports to expelling thousands of Venezuelan refugees.

Peru is grasping for political stability after going through three presidents in a single month last year. And with the world’s worst reported covid-19 mortality rate per capita, the country is in a desperate race to vaccinate as many of its 32 million people as possible before a third wave is expected to come crashing down later this month.

According to Peru’s electoral agency, Castillo leads the fiercely contested June 6 runoff by 44,000 votes out of nearly 19 million cast, taking 50.13 percent of the vote to 49.87 percent for his opponent, Keiko Fujimori, the daughter of jailed hard-right 1990s autocrat Alberto Fujimori.

Castillo holds narrow lead over Fujimori in Peru’s tight presidential election

But more than five weeks after election day and less than two weeks before inauguration day on July 28 (also the much anticipated 200th anniversary of Peruvian independence), Castillo, 51, has yet to begin preparing for the official transfer of power — his path blocked by Fujimori’s claims of electoral fraud.

With a looming trial for alleged money laundering and the potential for a long jail sentence if she doesn’t acquire presidential immunity, Fujimori, 46, is refusing to concede. The former lawmaker has hired some of Lima’s top lawyers to launch an unprecedented challenge to roughly 200,000 votes, cast mainly by Indigenous and Mestizo voters in impoverished, rural areas that heavily favored Castillo.

Her intransigence has tied down the national electoral tribunal, forcing it to wade through hundreds of cases of supposedly mismatched signatures in Peru’s paper-based electoral system. Even though it has rejected most of Fujimori’s appeals out of hand, the time-consuming process has prevented the tribunal from certifying the result.

“They’re going to commit electoral fraud, and we’re telling them that we will not accept it,” Fujimori told her supporters this week. The U.S. State Department, the Organization of American States and the European Union have all deemed the election free and fair.

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

Analysts warn that Fujimori’s misinformation campaign, aided and abetted by allies in the Peruvian Congress and even the electoral tribunal, is doing profound damage to Peru’s brittle democracy.

“Keiko just made us lose five years, and she is ready to make us lose another five,” said Pablo Secada, a former Lima assembly member and prominent member of the Christian People’s Party, Peru’s traditional center-right party.

The party has been almost squeezed out of existence by Fujimori’s populist brand of conservatism. Fujimori’s scorched-earth opposition tactics since narrowly losing the 2016 presidential runoff, including hounding ministers out of office and helping to unseat two presidents, have been blamed for destabilizing Peru and even undermining the country’s vaccination efforts.

Polls here suggest a significant minority of the electorate, especially from Lima’s moneyed classes, believe Fujimori’s claims, which have been echoed uncritically by much of Peru’s mainstream media. Prosecutors, meanwhile, have now added a criminal probe of her assault on the election’s validity to her list of legal headaches.

Fujimori’s strategy appears intended to undermine Castillo’s legitimacy once he is eventually inaugurated, potentially paving the way for a power grab in some form.

But there might be a more immediate goal: preventing an official result from being announced before July 28. If that happens, said Fernando Tuesta, a political scientist at the Pontifical Catholic University of Peru, the country’s constitution does not lay out a clear path forward.

“Would there still be a chance for Castillo to be inaugurated later?” Tuesta asked. “Would new elections be called? We just don’t know. Her tactics are just like those of Trump — if I don’t win, then it’s fraud — but Peru’s institutions are much weaker than those of the U.S.”

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

Nevertheless, many here are assuming that the president of the incoming Congress, dominated by the right-wing opposition, would become interim president.

The favorite for that role is Jorge Montoya, a retired admiral who has been calling for the elections to be annulled. He represents Popular Renewal, an ultraconservative party whose business executive leader, Rafael López-Aliaga, has spread vaccine misinformation and called for Castillo’s “death.”

The electoral tribunal is racing to finalize the appeals process even as it comes under a multipronged attack from Fujimori’s allies.

At one point, one of the judges on the panel, Luis Arce, attempted to resign, a move that would have left the body without a quorum. He is now being investigated for alleged illicit enrichment and has been banned from leaving the country.

Then it emerged that Vladimiro Montesinos, Alberto Fujimori’s Machiavellian spymaster, had, from his jail cell, sought to coordinate $1 million bribes to each of the four members of the tribunal.

Separately, since June 6, the outgoing Congress has embarked on a series of rushed attempted constitutional changes aimed at clipping Castillo’s wings before he takes office.

The moves, which narrowly failed to win enough votes, included packing the constitutional court with conservative lawyers, several of them linked to historic corruption cases. That last-ditch effort, in defiance of a court stay for allegedly failing to follow due process, has been lambasted by legal scholars and may have exposed the lawmakers to criminal prosecution.

“You won’t stop Castillo from becoming president,” Secada said. “Instead of pursuing these fraud claims, we should be sitting down with Castillo and negotiating with him. This is very damaging to Peru but also a tremendous missed opportunity.”

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