Peru’s democracy has gone off the rails, leaving voters trapped between extremes

Supporters of Peru's presidential candidate Pedro Castillo stand in front of the party headquarters in Lima on April 20. (Sebastian Castaneda/Reuters)
Supporters of Peru's presidential candidate Pedro Castillo stand in front of the party headquarters in Lima on April 20. (Sebastian Castaneda/Reuters)

At the moment, Peru's politics look like the result of putting a mad political scientist in a lab to think up nightmare scenarios for how a democracy might go off the rails. Nearly everything that could go wrong has gone wrong there, leaving the country to face a presidential runoff election between two extreme ideologues while the public, disgusted by corruption and ineffective governance, appears to have rejected the entire political class.

How did Peru get here? The roots of dysfunction go back to the 1980s, when extreme populist overspending led to a devastating bout of hyperinflation that wiped out the nascent middle class’s savings. Economic chaos fueled a bizarre, hyperviolent Maoist guerrilla movement known as Shining Path that distinguished itself by its wanton brutality.

Disgust with Shining Path was so raw that when a popularly elected president, Alberto Fujimori, shut down the country’s democratic institutions and vowed to crush the rebels by matching them blow-for-blow in terms of brutality, many Peruvians applauded. The result was a grisly, decade-long dictatorship that likely killed more people than Shining Path by the time it was through.

Peru returned to democracy two decades ago, but the political system still has echoes of the conflict in the 1980s and 90s. This year’s presidential runoff pits the ideological heir to the Shining Path insurgency against the literal heir (in fact, the daughter) of the dictator who crushed it.

To be blunt, neither candidate is fit to be president, but one of them will be.

On the left, we have Pedro Castillo, a former small-town school teacher and union leader who campaigns on horseback and is a member of the “ronderos,” a vigilante group in northern Peru. Castillo stunned the political establishment by coming first in the first round, though with only 18 percent of the vote. An unknown entity to many Peruvians a few months back, he is now widely expected to win the second round, with twice the support of his opponent in some recent polls.

Many left-wing candidates in Latin America get unfairly smeared as “Marxist” by their opponents. But Castillo’s political platform opens by defining his agenda as “Marxist” (specifically Marxist-Leninist) and criticizing leftists who reject the label. His party has detailed plans to expropriate mining projects into state hands and shut down “monopolies,” such as competing supermarket chains and airlines. Under pressure having won the first round, Castillo has waffled, at one point trying to distance himself from the most incendiary proposals in his own platform.

For her part, Keiko Fujimori’s ability to campaign around the country during the first round was limited due to her confinement over corruption charges. She appears to want the presidency largely for the immunity from prosecution it would win her. Playing off her father’s characterization of his rule as a “dictablanda” (or “soft dictatorship”), Fujimori now promises a “demodura” (a “hard democracy”) to make the “necessary choices to rescue the country.” Semantics aside, hers is an authoritarian agenda hiding in plain sight. Most voters are appalled at the thought.

Before the first round, observers worried that Peru’s fragmented Congress would make it impossible for the eventual winner to govern. Now, that bug is a potential feature, with Congress tying the hands of whichever extremist that ends up running the country. The (unlikely) best case scenario is that Congress moderates the next president, but neither Castillo nor Fujimori seem like the tacking-to-the-center type. More likely, it will be an endless clash as the president and Congress try to remove one another from power, paralyzing the state.

Part of the problem is that Perú has gradually morphed into a de facto parliamentary democracy: like European prime ministers, Peruvian presidents can be tossed out of office with minimal fuss the minute they lose the support of a congressional majority. Since the last presidential election in 2016, three presidents have been tossed out of office this way, and one unscheduled congressional election took place.

So the chances of an extremist president making it to the next election in 2026 without resorting to authoritarian measures is low. This means whoever wins may very well attempt a power grab against the Congress and the court system. Indeed, Fujimori senior got his start in the dark arts of authoritarian rule precisely by sending tanks down Lima’s streets to shut down an obstreperous Congress. Castillo’s platform calls for writing a new constitution, removing the constitutional court and replacing parts of the judicial system with popularly elected judges.

For all of the candidates’ ideological extremism, Peru’s election was never a fight over the policy direction of the country. The country faces a basic governance challenge. No person or party has the popular support needed to govern effectively.

Castillo is now very likely to win, but not because most Peruvians are secretly Marxists. It’s Fujimori’s stratospheric unfavorables that are propelling him to victory. If Castillo attempts to implement an extreme agenda, he will set off protests and political clashes. But the alternative — congressional gridlock and policy stagnation — risks further convincing Peruvians that their political system is hopeless.

As it stands, Peru continues to boldly innovate in the field of political dysfunction.

Francisco Toro is chief content officer of the Group of Fifty and a contributing columnist for Global Opinions. James Bosworth is the author of the Latin America Risk Report newsletter.

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