Protests in Lima. Protests in Lima. Photo: Flickr - Samantha Hare/ cropped from original / licensed under CC 2.0, links at the bottom of article

Years of corruption and growing inequality cemented left wing Pedro Castillo’s lead in Peru’s election, but the road to victory is an uphill battle, argues Jonathan Maunders

Leftist Pedro Castillo will face off against right-winger Keiko Fujimori in Peru’s presidential run-off election in June after a shock victory in the first round of voting, held recently. In a heavily divided field, Castillo won 19.1% of the vote, with Fujimori, the daughter of Peru’s disgraced former president, having been the next placed candidate with 13.4%.

Few predicted that Castillo, a trade-unionist, had much chance of challenging for the presidency. Pollsters regularly charted him as being outside the top six candidates and all but ruled out his victory. In fact, Castillo was regularly discounted as even the left’s most credible challenger.

Castillo’s first-round victory is a clear indication of the anger many Peruvians feel towards establishment politicians after years of corruption allegations and inequality. Many, particularly in Peru’s poorer regions, believe he can represent meaningful change.

Rampant corruption

Peru has been in crisis for several years, with successive corruption scandals eroding any public confidence in elected politicians. In the five years since its last presidential election Peru has had four presidents, most of whom were removed amid corruption allegations and political maneuvering.

Public opposition to this state of affairs has been bubbling for some time. In November 2020 President Manuel Merino was forced to resign, only five days into the job, after mass protests erupted in opposition to the coup to remove his predecessor, Martín Vizcarra. While Merino was eventually replaced by perceived unity candidate Francisco Sagasti, anger has continued to build.

The Covid-19 pandemic has further exposed the corruption and inequality rooted in the Peruvian political establishment. Peru has been decimated by the virus and has the most Covid-19 deaths per capita in South America. Yet, it was revealed in February that past and present government officials were secretly vaccinated before the general public. Meanwhile, the economic shock of the virus has cost 2.2 million workers their jobs. It has all culminated in many Peruvians desperately seeking radical change.

Enter Castillo

Pedro Castillo first came to public attention in 2017 after being a prominent figure in a teachers’ strike over pay and he announced his presidential run in October 2020, following a grassroots campaign.

Castillo built his campaign around a pledge to replace Peru’s constitution with one drafted by a constituent assembly. He has also promised to only take a salary equivalent to that of a teacher, in a clear anti-corruption stance, and outlined his opposition to neoliberalism, vowing to nationalise Peru’s fuel sectors.

Unbeknownst to most political commentators, his clear anti-establishment message was one that chimed with millions of Peruvian voters, particularly in rural areas. For many, his grassroots campaign has offered a genuine alternative to the widespread corruption and inequality of recent years.

Castillo referenced those people in his celebratory speech, stating “the blindfold has just been taken off the eyes of the Peruvian people.”

His first-round victory is a remarkable achievement and represents a huge rejection of Peru’s neoliberal establishment, but it is only the beginning; the biggest challenge awaits.

Can he win?

Although Castillo is the frontrunner, the first round had eighteen candidates, most of them from the right and far right, and two of which got above 10% of the vote. So the route to a left wing victory in the run-off is an uphill battle, but Castillo’s shock performance gives a huge opportunity for the left to put forward a radical platform in the mainstream.

June’s presidential run-off is a unique opportunity for Peruvians to smash the neoliberal system that has spread inequality and corruption for decades. If this chance is to be seized, the movement around Castillo must be prepared to fight.

The potential of a socialist government is a major threat to Peru’s political and business establishment, as well as external actors with influence in the region. One only has to look at leftist Andrés Arauz’s defeat in Ecuador’s recent presidential election to see what the establishment’s response to this threat can do.

Not only was the eventual winner Guillermo Lasso billed as the unity candidate, but Arauz was subjected to numerous false allegations and personal attacks that all ultimately led to his defeat. It is essential the Peruvian left learns from this if they are able to avoid the same fate.

The Peruvian establishment has already begun its campaign to present Keiko Fujimori as the safe candidate, despite her authoritarian politics and the brutal legacy of her father. Nobel-prize-winning author Mario Vargas Llosa recently demanded Peruvians vote for Fujimori and more public figures will surely follow.

The grassroots movement behind Castillo must also be prepared to face false allegations and attacks, similar to that suffered by Arauz. Only by building on their momentum and mobilising, can they repel such attacks and refocus attention on the anger of millions of Peruvians.

There is no doubt that Castillo and his supporters face a daunting challenge, but this is a huge opportunity for the Peruvian left to decimate the neoliberal establishment and forge a new path for Peru, free of corruption and inequality.

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