WTF Will Happen in Peru 2021?

UPDATE on 3 May: I felt cognitive dissonance soon after publish when the first opinion polls showed a 15-point lead for Castillo. But I’m being honest and owning this whether it’s right or wrong, with the caveat again that I’ve been gone for two years and out of day-to-day politics since 2017. My prediction was largely based on Keiko’s experience and Castillo’s inexperience under the raised stakes and white-hot glare of national attention. Ground is shifting, but I heard an interesting take soon after publishing. A “man on the street” interview, a middle-aged Limeño said, “We can impeach Castillo if he starts acting in bad faith. We won’t be able to impeach Keiko. We’ll never be able to get her out.” That was an “aha” moment when I realized I might be wrong here.

Peru’s national election produced a presidential runoff stranger than anything we’ve seen in a long time. While I’m not worried, it is definitely ugly.

In a contest that saw 18 candidates vying for president, Marxist union leader Pedro Castillo will advance to a runoff on June 6 against Keiko Fujimori, daughter of right-wing authoritarian former President Alberto Fujimori, who is jailed for ordering extrajudicial killings.

In short, it’s a leftist kook against a right-wing kook. There is no moderate. That’s the bad news for us neoliberals who like pragmatic technocrats.

The good news is that, no matter who wins, neither candidate will have a political mandate. Whoever wins will take office with a majority disapproval rate on Day 1, and it will probably get worse from there. So the good news is also a little bad. It’s hard to see any good governance of Peru coming out of this, it’s only a limited downside.

Below is the last poll before the election (Castillo and Fujimori are circled).

Data / image credit: Ipsos Peru

This is a shitshow to make any unappreciative gringo endorse the two-party system. Are there that many policy platforms in Peru? Of course not. Could the number of candidates be whittled down to something more manageable, maybe to the point where a majority of Peruvians can name all the serious contenders? Of course.

But alas, it’s a young, fragile democracy and shit happens. Below are the election results as of publishing.

Credit: El Comercio

With polling errors galore in a normal Peruvian election further skewed by the errors inherent in a pandemic, it was basically a toss-up. Ironically, as could happen in a two-party system, the two nuts on each polar extreme prevailed, like what could have happened if Sanders won the 2020 Democratic primary.

No Good Choice

As an analogy, I tell gringos this runoff is like if Minnesota Representative Ilhan Omar were running for president against Donald Trump Jr. You have a leftist firebrand with little political experience who promises revolution against the offspring of a former president who undermined democracy in a bid to hold power.

Most of the nervousness seems to be about Pedro Castillo, the leftist threat. In the fragile democracies of Latin America, authoritarian socialists can and do ruin countries. Case in point, Venezuela, which Castillo unbelievably hails as a model for Peru. He wants to nationalize the mining, oil and gas industries. Peru in fact has a state oil firm, a dog that hemorrhages cash (as opposed to the private firms which pay the government royalties for doing nothing).

On the other side, there is deserved nervousness about Keiko Fujimori doing harm to what rule of law there is in Peru. It’d also be an embarrassing, a stain on the country’s image, to elect the daughter of the jailed dictator. It’s worse than if Don Jr. won the presidency. It would be like electing Don Jr. if the Jan. 6 insurrection had prevailed and Trump served two or three terms before a disgraced resignation in exile, and Don Jr. did a little jailtime for money laundering. Electing Don Jr. after all that would be akin to Peru electing Keiko this year.

Yeah, no good option here.

My Prediction

Been saving this pic for years waiting for the right moment!

I have to qualify any predictions with the caveat that I have been ignoring Peruvian politics for years. And while I am well-read on Peru’s political history, I only followed in real time for about three years during my Peru Reports adventure.

I’ll also add that, even when I was immersed in the news and living in Peru, I was an extreme case of the Lima-centric, upper-class Creole, the disdain for whom is the primary driver of support for populists like Pedro Castillo. I may be the worst person to understand his voters. In short, I am BIASED.

Looking down from the plane, I pick Keiko to beat Castillo. In fact I think we’ll see a trouncing before a nail-biter. This despite her having won the fewest votes in the first round since having lost the last two second-round elections (this is her third presidential runoff!).

Why Keiko?

In short, because Castillo is a clown. This is him wearing a cowboy hat … AT THE PRESIDENTIAL DEBATE.

Part of the narrative for Castillo’s upset victory is the Lima-centric media again ignored or underappreciated frustration building up among provincial peasants. And those voters think the hat’s cool, but Peru isn’t Bolivia. It’s more urban and Creole, and I think the presentation of a hayseed is a nonstarter for a significant number of voters, even the leftists.

Not only does he look like a clown, he is in fact a clown. Or at least he does not strike me as serious enough to pivot toward the center from the extreme things he has said in order to attract the majority of voters who did not vote for a revolution in economic policy. He may be a shrewd operator (I’m not sure), but there simply isn’t enough time to rebrand yourself from chavista rondero to somebody who can sit down with the mining interests one moment, world leaders the next and so on.

Will Castillo prove to be a masterful politician and assuage the moderates’ fears? I think it’s just more likely he commits a major blunder that ends all the drama.

On the other hand, while inexperience used to be a top criticism of Keiko, she has now led Peru’s top opposition party for over 10 years. She engineered the resignation of my guy, PPK, in 2017. She knows her way around Congress, and she has undoubtedly begun putting together that centrist coalition already.

It’s worth nothing that Castillo isn’t sure to win even the leftist vote. Last election’s socialist darling Veronika Mendoza said that while a Keiko victory would be the worst thing for Peru, she stopped short of endorsing Castillo. She “has doubts about what Castillo represents …”

In 2016, on the other hand, Vero jumped to endorse PPK, neoliberal of neoliberals, to avoid the same result. It’s not just Vero being cautious. The preeminent gringo cheerleaders of socialists in Latin America, fucking NACLA, don’t support Castillo (probably because he’s an evangelical conservative on social issues).

Given Castillo must both reassure the center and convince the socialist left, and given he is the provincial novice going against a Lima-based professional, I think this country of mostly centrists holds its nose and votes for Keiko Fujimori, daughter of the dictator.

FREPAP activist, photo credit: AP

Then Castillo’s upset will be viewed in the same lens as the FREPAP party’s surprising wins in Congress in snap elections last year. The fundamentalist sect won the second most seats in Congress, yet didn’t meet the electoral threshold of 5% of the popular vote this year, so they will have no seats. Their success was a fluke driven by discontent with politicians in general.

Why No Worry?

I am not worried about a march toward chavista-style socialism and subsequent destruction of Peru’s economy even if Castillo wins.

  1. Castillo doesn’t have Congress.
  2. Castillo doesn’t have the security forces.
  3. Castillo doesn’t have the public.
  4. Castillo doesn’t have money.
  5. Castillo doesn’t have the international community.

Castillo’s party will control just a quarter of votes in Congress. Even if he brings Vero into his fold, her party’s five votes won’t get him even a third of total votes. He’ll be utterly impotent to pass radical legislation.

Any time we talk about a chavista-style march toward socialist apocalypse, we have to talk about Chavez, the pioneer. Chavez came from the military and knew how to bring the security forces into his regime over time. Castillo will work with a Peruvian military suspicious of him.

Less than a third of voters opted for socialist candidates promising a radical change in Peru’s economic model (28% total for Castillo, Mendoza and Arana). Chavez, on the other hand, was popular. Any radical measures Castillo proposes will have to compete with older Peruvians’ collective memories of the socialist 70s and nationalist 80s, as well as the daily reminders from the economic refugee chamos on every corner.

Castillo would not have enough money required to coopt the public or the political class. Chavez consolidated power in the country with the world’s largest oil reserves in the years of oil’s highest prices. Inability to win influence with largesse is why former President Ollanta Humala, a leftist military general allied with Chavez, had to embrace Peru’s business community during his administration.

Chavez was also funded by Wall Street and international money markets. There isn’t the same supply for leftist authoritarians in the wake of the pink tide’s crash. And with starving Venezuelans on the streets of Peru’s neighbors and in pictures of global media, there wouldn’t be the same international support to help propel a chavista-style socialist project.

While I’m not worried about Peru becoming the next Venezuela, I am not worried about Keiko consolidating power into a ruthless dictatorship either.

I certainly don’t think she will strengthen democracy, or even do no harm. But Keiko studied at Harvard. Her husband is American. She knows her father’s legacy is at best mixed, and at worst a disgrace. I can’t help but think part of her motivation in trying and trying and trying again is redemption.

And if I’m wrong about that … if in fact she tasted power then and has embarked on an unending pursuit to regain it, I don’t think she’ll get that far. I think the worst damage will be the message it sends to young Peruvians still learning civics and history, and the message it sends to the rest of the world about who they are as a country.

Most Likely Scenario: Continued Instability

Both Castillo and Keiko as president would be so weak in Congress and so unpopular with the public that any wrong move could bring impeachment. Both will be walking on eggshells just to finish their term.

Peru made global headlines this year for having three presidents in one week. The first was impeached, the second resigned under pressure from protests against the impeachment of his predecessor and the third is the caretaker seeing us through the current election.

With such a fractured Congress and no clear power center, those intrigues will likely continue. And of course not much will be accomplished.

No matter who wins the presidency, they won’t be effective. That’s the real downside of this election. There will be little progress.

On the bright side, this year is the bicentennial of Peru’s independence. Arriba Peru!

13 comments

  1. HI CP
    You are looking from the outside, now.
    There is gross discontent with K which I guess is not too visible from far away.
    There is also more than a hint of severe vote rigging.
    And it seems you’re allowing your sentiments to govern the estimates.
    Problem here: you can call it the neovirreinato if you like. These folks will NOT give up control. That is what this poo is all about. Even the polls, people say, are bought and paid for.

    Until the criollos give up “some of” their power and cash, nothing will change here.

    Disclaimer: discontent is becoming stronger. Will it explode? There is a big march planned for tomorrow.

    Hoka Hey!

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    1. I am very much on the outside and I’d go a little further. Even when I was inside, I was very much a part of the Lima-centric, Creole bubble that is apparently the object of frustration in the provinces and lower socioeconomic classes. So that should definitely be taken into account. I was in a way the Lima elite, and now I’m even less than “peruanos en el exterior,” where Castillo was barely an afterthought.

      Last night I saw that Lopez Aliaga had alleged fraud. I’m not sure if that will gain any traction, but I do know that if Keiko doesn’t have a chance if she doesn’t win over his base.

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  2. Colin, maybe it’s all true and and your take on Pervuian politics is right on. You have a vested interest now and always will. I’d like to see Machu Pichu and the Nazca lines, but as a tourist. Sportsbook pals of mine looked into setting up shop just before the plague hit, and after a month in country they came back to CR disappointed. They didn’t find opportunity. The food was great, they said and yes Peru is famous for it’s cuisine. My question is why should the rest of us scattered across Latin America be concerned with Peru?

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    1. Great question. Why should anybody outside Peru care?

      On the one hand, developments in any one country don’t play out in a vacuum. Trends are often indicative of Latin American sentiment in general. If one of the most business-friendly countries of the last generation lurches left, that could forecast similar shifts in Chile, Colombia, Panama or Costa Rica.

      On the other hand, the universalities of Latin culture don’t always translate to politics. Brazil can go fascist while Mexico goes socialist, and Peru elects something in between (in 2016). Sometimes there is nothing more to read into it.

      And then there are times where there is a macro-trend that seems significant, like the Pink Tide of leftist leaders, but when all said and done not much has changed. Venezuela is destroyed, but Argentina already was and the others have mostly emerged without being much better or worse off on the whole. So why care?

      That said, two reasons to (maybe) care:

      1. This may be the most important test to date of the anti-establishment frustration in the region. In the country where neoliberal, market-friendly policies delivered the best macroeconomic results in the region, a leftist threatening to blow it all up is facing a deeply flawed candidate with the highest negatives in a generation. If Castillo wins in Peru, the discontent with the political class is real and we may see similar votes elsewhere. Not for Marxist revolution necessarily, but for outsiders to make radical change just for the sake of change.

      2. I believe Costa Rica aims to join the Pacific Alliance, the biz-friendly bloc founded by Peru, Colombia, Chile and Mexico. A founding member floundering on its commitment to trade could set that progress back. If another flounders, it could become something irrelevant like Mercosur.

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  3. Based on the first round of voting – I don’t see how Keiko can lose this – that enough people would vote for Lopez Aliaga was worrying enough though I never thought Castillo would barge his way through to the second round – those right wing voters in the first round will put their second round votes with Keiko rather than Castillo (obviously…)

    I thought George would have done a lot better than he ended up doing, a poor show in the end but he can learn from Keiko – if he sticks around long enough and learn the ropes, he will get there in the end.

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    1. Definitely agree when you examine the first round voting from a left wing – right wing split, but I think there is another angle – the established political class/party v the outsider challenging the system, sure Lopez Aliaga is right wing but he is also an ‘outsider’ who gets votes because people are exasperated with the system and the old faces and political ‘brands’, I can see Castillo getting some of those vote transfers from the likes of Lopez Aliaga, I respectfully disagree with Mr Post’s prediction, I think Castillo is the (slight) favourite say 55-45 albeit he could screw it up with a “major blunder”. Feels like there is a lot of resentment in Peru at the moment which favours the reformer platform v the status quo.

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    2. Dazza, I would have said the same thing re: first round, but as I said in another comment I am inherently biased toward the pro-business, globalist, Lima, Creole, etc. etc. etc. Keiko wins the nationalist vote against someone like PPK, but not Castillo. How strong is nationalism in Peru right now?

      Ed, great point. First polls out in fact show Castillo up by over 10 points and Keiko’s “will never vote for” at 55%. Something I hadn’t thought of at time of publish is how important clientelism and patronage are in Peru and LatAm politics in general. Keiko will probably not run the table on bringing all the parties except Vero’s into her coalition. Some parties will roll the dice and join Castillo for the jobs and largesse in case he wins.

      After a week I think it’s clear the key to this election is how strong the frustration with the political class is. If that frustration can’t win this election, it may be a little overstated. BTW I saw Keiko positioning herself as outside that, saying “politicians for the last 20 years” and so on. We’ll stay tuned!

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  4. Castillo won by a landslide in the VRAEM. If he manages to win the second round i would imagine that Peru Libre would be a much bigger threat next time. They will have acces to state resources for 5 years, and probably a nice contribution from previously mentioned region. Ideal scenario to buy the popular vote in the conos of Lima. Not as worrying as Bolivia, but still not pretty as you put it.

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    1. If not Castillo there could very well be a similar candidate to come in the future if this rural, leftist populism has legs. I heard a take that Gregorio “Goyo” Santos’s surprising support five years ago was a precursor to Castillo. If so, this flavor of leader could be inevitable even if it’s not Castillo this year.

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  5. Great comments everybody. A week later, first polls since first round are out. Notable that Castillo is up by 11 points and 55% say they’ll NEVER vote for Keiko. On the other hand,

    two things I’m watching:
    1) Can Team Keiko essentially run the table and build a super-coalition with most of the losing parties?
    2) Will the 55% who say they’ll never vote for Keiko move in direct, negative correlation with how much Vladimir Cerron speaks publicly?

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    1. Like you said, the polls got their first round badly wrong and the protest vote of the right (Lopez Aliaga) has failed to materialise – I don’t think Fujimori is a protest vote as much as Castillo is – I think the people who voted for Lopez Aliaga and de Soto will definitely get behind Fujimori or pay the fine. They’re definitely not going to get behind Castillo.

      In 2016, Keiko won the first round but narrowly lost to PPK – and like you said, he was one of the best qualified candidates in The Americas to run for presidency of his country – I can’t see how Castillo will see off Keiko – she has a lingering smell against her but the threat against her would have been if de Soto took the other seat in the second round – I personally can’t see Castillo taking the second round and victory.

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    1. I’ve posted an update citing those and owning the fact that I may be dead wrong here. One particular opinion stuck with me, a “man on the street” in Lima said that electing Keiko was more dangerous than Castillo. If Castillo turns reckless or authoritarian, we the people can impeach him. But we’ll never be able to get Keiko out.

      That’s a great point I wouldn’t argue with, and I think many limeños (in particular) who don’t like Castillo could see him as the lesser of two evils.

      He also reminded me of exactly how much bad blood Keiko has created in playing toxic opposition to Humala’s government and then PPK / Vizcarra, engineering a resignation and an impeachment. And many people excluding myself were around for her father and suffered her rise from its inception.

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