The Triumph of Pedro Castillo Amid the Campaign to Undermine His Presidency

The victory of Pedro Castillo, a rural teacher, in Peru’s presidential elections will be recorded in the annals of history as one of the most significant events in the last 200 years of Peruvian history. With his pencil and megaphone in hand, Castillo embodies the impoverished and vulnerable inland populations of the country. During his campaign, the newly elected Castillo assuaged rumors circulated by the media that his victory would mean the arrival of communism and the rise of Shining Path. For months, the press advertised the idea that a Castillo government would be infiltrated by brigades of Cubans and Venezuelans and that his victory was part of an international strategy organized by the Sao Paulo Forum to seize power in Latin America for the left-wing.

Castillo, of the left-leaning Partido Peru Libre won 50.125% of the vote to beat out Keiko Fujimori, of the conservative Partido Fuerza Popular, with 49.875%,  during the second round of elections held on June 6–a difference of around 48 thousand votes. The National Office of Electoral Processes (ONPE) announced offical results nine days after the election.

This election represents the third consecutive loss for Fujimori. The first defeat came against Ollanta Humala, who beat her by 445 thousand votes, followed by a loss in 2016 against Pedro Pablo Kuczynski, who beat Fujimori by 41 thousand votes.  After that last presidential race, Fujimori did not congratulate her opponent and in the years that followed, she waged a war on Kuczynski from Parliament, where her party had the majority seats. For five-years, Peru lived through a period of ungovernability in which several ministerial cabinets were dissolved, four presidents rose and fell, and one Congress was dissolved and a new one elected.

Now the supposed defenders of democracy and warriors against international communism are already bearing their claws to fight to oppose the recent election results. “No one here gives up. We are going to fight against the Chavista fraud planned and executed by the agents of Cuba and Venezuela (…) We cannot allow a dictatorship to be imposed by stealing the elections and distorting the popular will ”, read one recent Tweet.

The first step consisted of requesting annulment of certified ballots already verified and counted by the ONPE, particularly those from rural areas and indigenous communities where Castillo won by large margins. One of Fujimori’s powerful lawyers, Julio César Castiglioni, argued that “in the mountains they have filled the ballot boxes indiscrimminately,” a phrase that delegitimizes the popular will of the indigenous and rural communities of Peru. A recent column in the Washington Post– “Pedro Castillo could defeat the Peruvian right, but not its racism,” — launches harsh criticism of Peruvian conservatism, arguing that “the project to suppress indigenous votes seals a campaign charged with verbal racism and describes the way that Fuerza Popular understands the country.” The column stated that “to challenge rural votes is a reasonable option to present publicly to many, thanks to the fact that Peruvian ways of thinking reveal a  country divided into two types of citizenship: an orderly, future-oriented, urban type where the economic elites flourish, and another type that is chaotic, barbaric, ‘far away’, fraud-oriented and still awaiting ‘civilization’ ”. As if in 200 years of Peruvian history, they still cannot fathom the idea that indigenous people not only have the right to vote, but to vote for what they believe in.

To keep the barbarians at bay, according to this logic, the powerful law firm hired by Keiko Fujimori (supposedly, ad honorem) has resorted to invoking the Organic Law of Elections. In article 363, this stipulates the grounds for declaring vote tallies null and void, which include serious violations such as “the existence of fraud, bribery, intimidation or violence to influence the vote in favor of a list of candidates or of a certain candidate”, which seem to hve no applicationin this case. To annul a tally, means annulling between 200 and 300 votes contained in each one. Furthermore, the ballots of each vote cast are destroyed at the voting table at the moment they are transcribed onto the vote tally sheet, which are approved by the members of the polling station, party officials and an ONPE official. The ballots conserved are the ones  attached with the tally sheet for resolution by the Special Elections Jury, a process that concluded without cleanly and without incident on June 15.

Multiple national and international observers, including the Organization of America States (OAS), pronounced ther process fair. After the request for the annulment of the Acts, the OAS once again pointed out that it observed a positive electoral process, in which substantial improvements were recorded between the first and second rounds. José Vivanco, president of Human Rights Watch, went further and said that the request for annulment of the Acts weakens democracy and does not defend the use of the Law.

Representatives of indigenous, peasant and Amazonian communities have rejected the charges filed by Fujimori’s lawyers, who seek to annul more than 200,000 votes . They pointed to “evident racism” that does not respect the rural votes cast in the most remote areas of the country. Many announced that they would initiate legal measures to “enforce” the vote of rural areas and that they will not accept having their vote stolen.

Unfortunately for Fuerza Popular, only 132 Acts were entered into the JNE to request their annulment within the parameters provided by law. The number of votes attached to them, even if the Jury were to nullify all of them, is not enough to reverse the result of the election. As a result, Fujimori’s party initiated a judicial battle to extend the established deadlines – an illegal act- and presented new requests for annulment. They now argue that, given supposed indications of systematic fraud, votes must i be reviewed to give legitimacy to the next government.

However, given the lack of evidence it is likely that the National Elections Jury will reject Fujimori’s request. Its members have been harassed as hundreds of protesters station themselves in front of their homes every day. They are also threatened on social media and branded as communists, defenders of terrorists, Chavistas, among other insults.

Fujimori has requested “a computer audit of the process of digitization of electoral records“, and representatives of extreme right sectors have requested that, given the alleged signs of fraud, the second round of elections be declared void. Ultra-right journalists incite citizens to take over the Government Palace and overwhelm the JNE with more requests for the annulment of records and requests for habeas data to the Judiciary. This has nothing to do in the electoral process since they are independent powers.

A letter affirming “electoral fraud” from former senior commanders in retirement from the Army, Navy and Air Force, and sent to the Joint Command of the Armed Forces has further stirred intensified the crisis, imñlying that if Pedro Castillo is proclaimed winner, the military institutes will not recognize him. President Francisco Sagasti forwarded this communication to the Public Ministry so that “within the framework of its powers and functions, it may carry out the necessary investigations to determine possible conduct that is harmful to the constitutional order.”

Peruvian Nobel Prize winner, Mario Vargas Llosa, added fuel to the fire, writing that since Mrs. Fujimori conveyed suspicions of fraud against her, the legal battle must be fought to its last consequences and the JNE’s decision must be respected. The Peruvian writer opined that there is still a chance that Fujimori will win the elections and that she says that she has examined her conscience, recognized the mistakes made during the past five years and promised to respect democracy. The Public Prosecutor’s Office has charged Keiko Fujimori with  crimes of leading a criminal organization, money laundering, obstruction of justice and false declaration in administrative proceedings, for which it has requested a prison sentence of 30 years.

The right’s objective is to arrive at July 28–the day of the presidential inauguration–with no official president. In this case, the retired admiral, Jorge Montoya, elected congressman of the far-right Partido de Renovación Popular, would assume the presidency in his capacity as president of Congress and would call new elections.

If Castillo manages to overcome the campaign against him of the supposed saviors of the homeland from international communism, he would not even be able to turn Peru into Cuba, Venezuela or North Korea, as the opposition claims he will. Castillo lacks support in Congress, since out of a total of 130 congressmen, he has only 37, plus the five congressmen of Veronika Mendoza’s Juntos por el Peru (Together for Peru). He could probably count on the support of some center parties such as the Partido Morado (of President Sagasti), and some members of Acción Popular or Alianza por el Progreso. The right-wing alliance holds the majority, since in addition to Keiko Fujimori’s Fuerza Popular, they have the extremist right-wing party Renovación Popular of Rafael López Aliaga, the liberal Avanza País of Hernando de Soto and the populist Alianza para el Progreso, of César Acuña. In other words, the margin for changes in Congress is very small.

Pedro Francke, head of the president-elect’s economic team, has stated that the government’s main concerns will be the pandemic, unemployment, and poverty. Peru was one of the hardest-hit countries during the pandemic. With 32 million inhabitants, almost 190,000 people have died due to COVID-19. It is by far the country with the highest number of deaths per population in the world.

Francke has reiterated that there will be no nationalization or confiscation of savings. Their Bicentennial Plan states that economic reactivation will be promoted through a focus on small and medium-sized companies, and agricultural enterprises in the highlands. The resources for the economic reactivation will come from a greater tax collection, which will be achieved through two elements. First, cracking down on tax evasion and avoidance (according to Francke, Peru collects less than half of what it should due to tax evasion); and second, through an increase in mining taxes or royalties. The international prices of copper, tin and gold, Peru’s main export products, have risen significantly. Francke believes that “The additional wealth from mining should be shared with Peruvians”.

More resources will be allocated to social spending, especially in health, education, and innovation and technology. The new economic policy will stop sacrificing social spending to have keep the fiscal deficit under control: This is what all governments have done in the last thirty years, leading to applause from the international establishment, much like in  Chile and Colombia. The path towards a fairer distribution of income will be complex and will probably require a governance agreement with mediators such as the National Agreement or even the Catholic Church.

The problem of governance

Following Trump’s election handbook, Fuerza Popular’s strategy of calling fraud and driving a wedge in society, has generated a degree of polarization and fear in Peru that will be hard to overcome and will make governance difficult. Fujimori and her lawyers know they lost the elections and what they are trying to do is to delay the process to generate chaos, uncertainty, and to terrorize the people with warnings of the immenent arrival of communism, the supposed confiscation of savings and the nationalization of even candy stands and mom and pop shops.

Unlike Donald Trump’s desperate attempt to install the idea of fraud in society and seek to reverse the November 2020 election, the written and television press in Peru, with very few exceptions, is complicit in this campaign of “lie and lie and lie that something remains”, attributed to Goebbels, the propaganda minister of the Third Reich. Many journalists have been forced to resign for not submitting to the media owners’ broadcasting policy. In the United States, important media outlets were able to counteract the disinformation campaign of the former president. Here, on the other hand, journalists have been forced out due to pressure from the media owners to support Fujimori’s candidacy. Even the foreign press accredited in Peru has issued a communiqué denouncing the harassment and defamation to which several correspondents are systematically subjected.

What awaits Castillo

Pedro Castillo defeated his opponent in clean and transparent elections, and despite the artillery deployed by the powers that be, it is unlikely that they will be able to reverse the results through legal means. If Castillo succeeds in taking office, the orchestration of the campaign against him will continue and instability will not be due to the policies he adopts, but to the climate of polarization promoted by media and forces that cannot accept the idea that someone from the rural highlands could occupy the Pizarro Palace. Due to the charges against her, Keiko Fujimori will probably seek asylum in some embassy and then flee the country, as her father did.

Democracy and the independence of powers that her followers talk so much about are of no real concern to them. What matters to the conservatives is to maintain the status quo and preserve the model and its privileges at any cost. Castillo’s victory is already a triumph despite the fact that the powers that be will try to destroy it. This is part of the path away from neoliberalism initiated by Chile and most likely to be followed by Colombia and Brazil.

Meanwhile, society has been sprayed with gasoline and any spark could ignite violence in the bicentennial year of Peru’s independence.

Ariela Ruiz Caro is an economist from Humboldt University of Berlin and holds a Master’s Degree in Economic Integration Processes from the University of Buenos Aires. She is an analyst of the Americas Program for the Andean/Southern Cone region.