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In his closing statement as a leading candidate in Peru’s last presidential debate on May 30th in Arequipa, Pedro Castillo, the favorite of the left-wing Perú Libre (PL) party, promised that if he became President, there would be “no more poor people in a rich country.”
The second-biggest producer of copper in the world, Peru is a country where a narrow middle-class coexists with a multitude of people living in poverty. Currently, the wage share of GDP is less than 32% — in most developed countries, it is closer to 50%. Even worse, COVID has hit Peru harder than any other country in the world: more than 187,000 have died so far, and some 2.2 million jobs have lost.
A former leader of the Peruvian Teacher’s Union (SUTEP), Castillo was born in the highlands of Cajamarca, where the poorest peasant communities in Peru coexist with profitable mining companies. He is a primary school teacher, a rondero (self-defense guard) of his town, Puña. Running as the candidate of PL, he was burdened by the party’s history of corruption and money laundering, and its Marxist-Leninist ideology. Such factors should have made his party an easy prey for the conservative media, but in the first round of voting, they trained their fire on the social and gender agenda of the leftist Verónika Mendoza from Juntos por el Perú (JP). Castillo squeaked past Mendoza to take first place – and win the opportunity to represent Peruvian progressives in the final round against Keiko Fujimori and her hard right party Fuerza Popular (FP).
Neither Castillo nor Fujimori got more than 30% of the votes in the first round of elections when 18 political parties participated. The large number of candidates was a consequence of Alberto Fujimori’s coup d’état in 1992, which left Peru with an atomized and candidate-centered party system in the country.
This year’s Peruvian Presidential election was a decisive moment in the ongoing confrontation between the affluent urban residents of Coast and the backward peasants in the provincias (provinces). The provincias from the highlands supply the main resources for mining exports, but the peasants and miners have not benefited from the gains of economic growth. Most of the Unions disappeared under the economic reforms applied since 1990, therefore workers do not have bargaining power, and these citizens lack the channels to lobby for political representation in the government.
This is the reason why Castillo represented hope for the citizens of the highlands and the Amazon. In contrast, Fujimori, as a longtime resident of Lima, symbolized the centralization of economic and political power in the capital, and a continuation of the neoliberal economic policies (the so-called modelo) introduced by her father in the 1990s.
During the first round of the presidential elections, Castillo proposed to change the Peruvian Constitution of 1993 by convening a constituent assembly. Likewise, he advocated dissolving the Peruvian Constitutional Court, deactivating the Ombudsman Office, and electing judges by popular vote. He also proposed to nationalize many industries, in order to reappropriate the country’s natural wealth currently being captured by the foreign capital.
However, when Castillo saw the polls for the second round of the elections, he moderated his initial proposals and accepted the support of the experts coming from the leftists JP and Frente Amplio, who designed a new plan to win support from centrist voters in his runoff against Fujimori.
Despite fierce opposition from Peru’s mainstream media, Pedro Castillo got a tight election victory over Fujimori. The difference in votes was less than a hundred thousand in a country with more than 30 million population and 18 million voters.
Castillo carried the Peruvian Andes and the poor areas of the Coast and the Amazon. Castillo also got support from some of the religious electorate because of his evangelical Christian roots.
Fujimori cried fraud in the election even though the Organization of American States and other electoral observers’ mission qualified it as fair. Like Donald Trump, Fujimori tried to mobilize her supporters to defend their “Peruvian right to vote” against the victory of PL.
But her protests have proved fruitless – and Peru now has a President with an ambitious left-wing agenda for the country.
The victory of Castillo represents a new opening for the democratic aspirations of the Peruvian people.
In the short run, the new government must end the pandemic crisis using fiscal and monetary policies to achieve employment recovery and social relief for the Peruvians. Abandoning his proposal for convening a constituent assembly, Castillo now promises to reform the executive branch and the local units of the government. Pedro Francke, the top economic advisor of Castillo, reiterated before the media that PL will preserve the market economy and the Central Bank autonomy but transform the Peruvian neo-liberal modelo into a “popular economy with markets.”
A critical economic reform, the improvement of the pension funds system, involves both the increase of competition in the system and the modernization of the government alternative. Finally, Castillo may increase public investment in education and the healthcare system with government revenues generated by a new excess profit tax rate applied to mining companies.
Of course, Castillo’s government will face strong political opposition. Whereas a hypothetical leftist coalition integrated by PL and JP would only represent 42 of 130 seats in the Legislative, the three extreme right-wing parties consolidate an opposition of almost 60 lawmakers potentially capable of blocking Castillo’s constitutional reforms. PL itself may be at risk of split if some militants refuse to endorse president Castillo’s newly moderate policies.
But for now, Peru has embraced the hopes of a new political leader. If Castillo honors his campaign promises, he will become the first leftist president of 21st century Peru. A politician from a plebeian background, Castillo may also find a way to reconcile the hopes of impoverished provincials with the interests of Lima’s middle class.
Social justice and equality are goals we Peruvians hope to achieve after the celebration of Peru’s Independence Bicentennial; for that reason, we must resist the populist temptation that has affected both left- and right-wing politicians in Peru. Otherwise, Castillo will throw away a unique opportunity to build a new Peru.
César J. Castillo García is a PhD student in Economics at the New School for Social Research. Member of the Grupo de Investigación de Filosofía Social, PUCP (Peru).
The author wishes to acknowledge Noemi Montes Ph.D. and Julio Villa-Palomino, Ph.D. candidate of Anthropology at UNC for their contributions to this essay.