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).
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.
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.
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!).
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.
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.
- Castillo doesn’t have Congress.
- Castillo doesn’t have the security forces.
- Castillo doesn’t have the public.
- Castillo doesn’t have money.
- 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 officer 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 Boston University, MBA at Columbia. 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!