Leftist teacher takes on dictator’s daughter as Peru picks new president

Peruvians must choose between the son of illiterate peasant farmers who pledges to upend the country’s free-market economy and the unpopular daughter of a 1990s autocrat, who faces jail on corruption allegations, when they vote on Sunday in the most polarized election in living memory.

Amid surging poverty, one of the world’s worst Covid outbreaks, months of political crisis and rampant anti-left scaremongering, Peruvians will choose the fifth president in as many years.

Rightwing Keiko Fujimori, 46, who narrowly lost in the previous two presidential runoff votes, is technically tied in opinion polls with Pedro Castillo, a former teachers’ union leader who belongs to the hard-left Peru Libre party and holds a lead of just two percentage points over his rival.

Images of the last week of the campaign show Castillo, wearing his trademark wide-brimmed straw hat, standing on a stage where he appears dwarfed by a hill covered by a multitude of supporters in Peru’s southern highlands.

Fujimori struck a more lonely figure when she was pictured in the courtyard of an aristocratic mansion in the southern city of Arequipa signing a pledge to uphold democracy, surrounded by elite figures including the rightwing Venezuelan opposition leader Leopoldo López and Álvaro Vargas Llosa, whose father, the novelist Mario Vargas Llosa, endorsed the candidate as the “lesser of two evils” .

The Peruvian elite has rallied around Fujimori, terrified at the prospect of a victory for Castillo, whose Marxist party backs widespread resource nationalisation, higher taxes, import substitution and pledges to rewrite the constitution for “the people”.

“Cuba; poverty, death, fear, desperation,” reads an electronic billboard on the side of Lima’s main trunk road. The message is clear, even though it makes no reference to the leftist candidate.

Observers say they have not seen such scaremongering tactics since 1990 when Alberto Fujimori was himself the outsider candidate who beat Mario Vargas Llosa.

After Castillo’s unexpectedly strong showing in the first round, “our business aristocracy panicked and opted for fear,” said political scientist and newspaper columnist Gonzalo Banda. Several corporations have helped Keiko’s campaign with apparently free advertising and electoral propaganda on food handouts in poor neighbourhoods.

Castillo has done little to moderate his message, lambasting the “golden salaries” of the despised political class and pledging to overturn the “old, corrupt state”.

“No more poor people in a rich country,” is his campaign motto. It rings true with millions of supporters at home in Cajamarca, the region with the country’s most lucrative gold mines yet one of its poorest and most neglected.

In the first-round ballot, he swept up votes across the Andes, winning more than 50% of the vote in three regions considered part of “Peru Profundo” or “Deep Peru” – a world away from the coastal capital where Fujimori has become the champion of the establishment.

“It’s obvious that the playing field has not been level and the electoral authorities have not been able, or not wanted, to do anything to level it,” said Giovanna Peñaflor, a political consultant and director of the Imasen pollster.

But polls show that Fujimori had the highest rejection rate of any of the candidates in the first round. She is also the object of Peru’s most enduring political movement of the last two decades – antifujimorismo.

Keiko Fujimori at a campaign event on the outskirts of Lima in May.
Keiko Fujimori at a campaign event on the outskirts of Lima in May. The Peruvian elite has rallied around Fujimori, terrified at the prospect of a victory for Castillo. Photograph: Raul Sifuentes/Getty Images

That rejection goes beyond the legacy of her father Alberto Fujimori, who is serving a 25-year sentence over death-squad killings and rampant corruption. Keiko has also racked up accusations of graft and could face a 30-year jail term if convicted.

She has spent more than a year in pre-trial detention accused of receiving more than $17m in illegal campaign funds and heading a criminal organisation, her political party Fuerza Popular. She denies the allegations, which she describes as politically motivated.

Her confrontational tactics – forcing the resignation of a former president and a leadership clash with her own younger brother Kenji – have also made her hate figure in her own right.

“It’s not possible that someone investigated for corruption can be launching themselves for the presidency,” said Wendy Mesa, 33, at a march against her candidacy in downtown Lima, on Tuesday. “We don’t know Pedro Castillo but with Keiko [Fujimori] we have proof [of her wrongdoing].”

“We Peruvians have dignity and we remember. I’m marching against the leader of a criminal organisation,” said 48-year-old Marisa Rojas.

After a rancorous campaign, both sides have threatened not to accept the result if they lose, citing suspicions of electoral fraud.

“We’ve never seen an election with so much fake news about the elections,” tweeted Ivan Lanegra, secretary general of the Peruvian NGO Transparencia. “The atmosphere of mistrust favours their spread,” he said.

Further adding to the atmosphere of crisis, new statistics this week revealed what many Peruvians already suspected: that their country had the highest Covid death toll per capita in the world. The country’s health system – state and private sectors – collapsed under the demand for hospital beds and oxygen.

As poverty grew from 20% to 30% of the population between 2019 and 2020, for millions of angry and grief-stricken Peruvians the ‘economic model’ was broken beyond repair.

“The anxiety and stress has generated more violent reactions” in the build-up to the vote, says Yamamoto.

“The polarization won’t stop after the elections, and if Covid is not under control, that mix could be extremely dangerous,” he added.

source: theguardian.com