Peru—Between a Rock and a Hard Place

The recent presidential elections in Peru have confirmed a pattern that has been in evidence for several election cycles. Peruvians have made it a habit of voting in the first round of the elections so as to place themselves, with regard to the second round, in impossible situations—i.e. having to pick between two unpalatable candidates.

In this case, the April 11th elections saw Pedro Castillo, the candidate of Peru Libre, a party that defines itself as Marxist-Leninist, has Venezuela as its model and some of whose members have been close to organizations that act as fronts for Shining Path, the terrorist organization, obtain the largest number of votes. The runner-up was Keiko Fujimori, the daughter of Alberto Fujimori, who governed dictatorially in the 1990s and has been imprisoned for human rights abuses and corruption. Keiko herself, who has led the party for years, faces charges of money laundering.

Peru recovered its democracy in 2001 and for a while enjoyed a period of economic prosperity that turned it into a darling of foreign investors. But the Peruvian free-market model that replaced the old, statist system only went halfway. Crony capitalism, centralization, unspeakable corruption and an elitist system in which the greatest opportunities were reserved for those close to power turned hopeful Peruvians into skeptics willing to throw away much of the progress that the country had made. Partly because they wanted to protest against what they saw as a putrid political class and partly because they were willing to experiment with those who promised a change of model, some years ago Peruvian voters began to turn every run-off election into a nerve-wracking choice between unpalatable options.

In this case, the skepticism has been compounded by the devastating effects of the pandemic. Peru has been one of the worst-hit countries in Latin America and its authorities have mishandled the crisis horrifically. The upward social mobility that had expanded the middle class in the last couple of decades thanks to Peru’s growing role in the global economy is being reversed. Many Peruvians who have gone back to poverty have hope in Castillo, who promises to do away with the prevailing model, while in the case of Keiko Fujimori, despite the erosion suffered by her organization, a large enough base of support has remained to allow her to go on to the second round, which will take place in June. That said, the two finalists have obtained a very low percentage of the total votes.

What should one do? Well, one has to opt for the lesser of two evils. Castillo’s Peru Libre wants to replicate in Peru the authoritarian, statist-socialist model fully or partially implemented in many countries of Latin America with tragic results, economically and politically. Once they gain power, these types of leaders quickly begin to dismantle the republican institutions, nationalize the economy and take control of the judiciary and the media. The more opposition they face, the more ruthless their dictatorships become.

In the case of Keiko Fujimori, although there is a danger that the Fujimoristas will go back to their old ways, there is a greater chance, should they do so, of stopping them. In recent years, every time Fujimorismo has been perceived as a threat to the reigning institutions, millions of Peruvians have successfully taken to the streets or to the polls to stop them. Since Keiko would command a small minority in Congress, she would have less room to maneuver than would have been the case in previous elections, when she helped elect numerous members of Congress from her party. One would like to think, furthermore, that the consequences she and her family have suffered because of the dictatorship of the 1990s and the subsequent conduct of her organization have ingrained in her mind the need to clear her name and atone for the tragic mistakes of the past.

As someone who has combatted Fujimorismo for three decades, I have to admit, with much trepidation, that this time Keiko represents the lesser of two evils and perhaps a better chance of preserving and expanding the gains that Peru has made since it recovered its democratic system than her opponent. I hold my breath.

Alvaro Vargas Llosa is a Senior Fellow at the Independent Institute. His Independent books include Global Crossings, Liberty for Latin America, and The Che Guevara Myth.
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