Peru faces a polarizing presidential runoff vote, in which a hard-left schoolteacher – who caught a wave of popular discontent over the coronavirus and a cratering economy – will face the far-right heiress to one of the country’s most enduring and controversial political dynasties.
Pedro Castillo, a veteran teachers’s union leader, took pollsters and voters by surprise in Sunday’s first-round vote winning 18.47% with 84% of the official vote counted. In second place, Keiko Fujimori – daughter of the jailed former leader Alberto Fujimori – polled 13.12%, closely followed by two more far-right candidates.
Castillo – who was largely unknown before polling day – stunned the country as he swept up votes in poorer regions of the country, winning in 16 of Peru’s 24 regions, and by more than 50% in two of the poorest Andean states.
“The blindfold has just been taken off the eyes of the Peruvian people,” he told jubilant supporters from a balcony in his hometown of Tacabamba in the highland Cajamarca region.
“We’re often told that only political scientists, constitutionalists, erudite politicians, those with grand degrees can govern a country. They’ve had enough time,” he said to cheers as people danced in the streets.
Castillo became a prominent figure in 2017 during a teachers’ strike over pay and in October 2020 he announced he would run for president for the leftist Perú Libre party, after campaigning at a grassroots level.
But in opinion polls ahead of the election, he had failed to make it into the list of top six candidates until days before the vote. He barely registered 3% in a poll taken in mid-March.
Adriana Urrutia, a political scientist who heads the pro-democracy organization Transparencia, said: “His anti-system discourse has managed to catch all the discontent, the anger and the preoccupation of the electorate that are affected by the pandemic.
“In Peru, inequality translates into political options,” she added. “A large part of the population has many unattended demands in places that the state doesn’t get to and the traditional political class doesn’t represent.”
Castillo has tapped into public anger over widespread political corruption and the handling of the coronavirus pandemic. Peru has one of the world’s worst Covid-19 death tolls with an excess mortality rate almost three times the official figure of nearly 55,000 deaths.
Keiko Fujimori, like her father a highly divisive figure, had promised an “iron fist” approach to crime and corruption. She herself is under investigation for money laundering, which she denies, and has spent months behind bars in pretrial detention. Her father governed Peru in the 1990s and was convicted of death squad killings and rampant corruption.
The prospect of a polarized race does not bode well as Peru’s battered economy recovers amid spiralling unemployment and poverty, says Fiona Mackie, regional director at the Economist Intelligence Unit for Latin America and the Caribbean.
“It is clear that the political environment in Peru, which has been highly unstable for years, will if anything deteriorate,” she said.