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In another historically defining moment for Latin America, this Sunday, Peru will choose its path for the next few years between two political tendencies that often clash in the region: a left-leaning trade union educator in search of constitutional changes and a right-wing neoliberal representative of everything that currently defines Peruvian politics.
In the upcoming runoff presidential elections to be held in Peru this weekend, a trade union left-wing leader will face the conservative heir of the powerful Fujimori family, months after a heated political crisis rocked the country's landscape.
Trade union leader and educator Pedro Castillo surprisingly emerged ahead in the first presidential round, with promises to write a new constitution and overwhelming support from rural and urban youth sectors. His challenger will be Keiko Fujimori, daughter of the imprisoned former president that shaped the political landscape in the country since the 1990s. Presidential candidate Fujimori is currently facing corruption allegations, which she has repeatedly denied.
The 51-year-old primary teacher from Peru's Cajamarca region started his political career in 2002 when he unsuccessfully ran for mayor. In 2017, he became a prominent figure in a teachers' strike over pay, and in October 2020, he announced he would run for president for the left-wing Free Peru party. His support in the first election round comes from remote rural areas, rarely touched by pollsters and largely forgotten by previous governments. Mr. Castillo's message of clean politics and a new constitution appealed to many Peruvians fed up with the corruption scandals that have plagued politics for years.
Meanwhile, the 45-year-old former congresswoman represents the Popular Force Party, and this is her third attempt at reaching the presidency, having lost previously two presidential election run-offs in 2016 and 2011. She is the daughter of former President Alberto Fujimori, serving a 25-year prison sentence for human rights abuses. As a free-market supporter with a neoliberal project, Ms. Fujimori says she will use Peru's mining income to boost the economy. She has also said that she will create two million jobs by expanding infrastructure and investing in health and education.
How did Peru reach this point where a primary school teacher got a presidential candidacy while the daughter of one of Peru's most controversial leaders stands opposite him with a clearly defined right-wing neoliberal agenda?
Peru has been through a series of political crises in recent years, causing significant instability at the very top of the political system. In November last year, Peruvians were led by three presidents within the space of a week as then-leader Martín Vizcarra was impeached. Pushing an anti-graft platform, interim Peruvian President Martin Vizcarra proposed a referendum on parliamentary immunity in 2020. Congress subsequently impeached and ousted him five months before his term expired, a move denounced by the public as a legislative coup that led to massive demonstrations and social unrest across the entire country. The coup's organizer and then-president of the Peruvian Congress, Manuel Merino, replaced Vizcarra.
Merino's presidency was short-lived. His government reacted with excessive force against the largely peaceful demonstrators, resulting in the deaths of two youths and dozens of protesters missing from an overwhelming outburst of police brutality. Amid international condemnation and demands by ever-growing numbers of protesters, Merino was forced to resign after only five days in office to be replaced by interim president Francisco Rafael Sagasti.
In addition to all this political chaos at the top of the government in 2020, the Andean country has also been badly hit by the Covid pandemic. According to Johns Hopkins University figures, Peru holds the record in South America for the highest number of Covid-19 deaths per capita. The economy has deeply felt the impact of the pandemic, contracting by 11% in 2020. More than 2.2 million people have lost their jobs. Trust in politicians, already low after years of political scandals and corruption charges, was further eroded by the so-called "Vaccinegate," the revelation in February that previous and current government officials secretly got vaccinated early against Covid-19.
The current political crisis in Peru has its roots in Alberto Fujimori's 1990s administration. Fujimori inherited an economy decimated by inflation and a country plagued by anti-guerrilla violence. As he worked to address these concerns, Fujimori suffocated Peruvian democracy, bypassing the legislature and governing largely through executive decrees, before finally dissolving Congress in a "self-coup." In April 1992, he had Army tanks brought into the capital to the very steps of Congress, using tear gas against protesting senators before arresting members of the political opposition. In the aftermath, Fujimori rewrote the Peruvian constitution, which is still in effect today.
Though he was removed from office in 2000 and subsequently tried and convicted for his human rights violations, his confrontational legacy of governance-by-force remains in the Peruvian collective memory. This trauma resurfaced with Merino's deployment of militarized police into Lima's streets and his alleged complicity in the disappearance of over 40 protestors.
Thousands of Peruvians have taken to the streets since President @ppkamigo granted a "humanitarian" pardon to one of the country's most hated figures -- former President Alberto Fujimori. Here's why. pic.twitter.com/frLWNFj038
These cycles of vicious political conflict have disseminated corruption through all the layers of Peruvian political life. Every former living president has been investigated or charged for corruption. As of 2018, 94% of all mayors were under investigation, and more than half of sitting congressional representatives have stood accused. For decades, Peruvians' frustration has only grown as the executive, and legislative branches purport to protect democratic values but instead focus on filling their coffers.
The recent social unrest and massive demonstrations have focused on demands for constitutional reform and a more transparent political process that explains Castillo's appeal. Within the current constitution, a great deal of power is concentrated in Congress, with very little accountability and a judiciary open to political pressure. Ongoing efforts to eliminate congressional impunity remain a pending issue that the new government must address. Congress members must be obliged to answer allegations and accept the consequences following the due legal process. Police reform, another pending issue, has seen pale efforts under Sagasti's interim rule.
Looking ahead to the 2021 elections, the most encouraging outcome of this political movement is the engagement of younger generations. Young Peruvians intend to hold their government to account and play a substantive role in their country's future.