Left-Wing Trade Unionist Pedro Castillo Will Be President of Peru

Peru was the birthplace of neoliberal populism under Alberto Fujimori. Now Pedro Castillo, a socialist trade unionist from an indigenous background, has won its presidency.

Pedro Castillo in Lima, Peru, on June 7, 2021. (Luka Gonzales / AFP via Getty Images)

Even as the last votes are still being tallied in Peru’s nail-biter elections, it looks like left-wing presidential contender Pedro Castillo will hold on to his narrow lead over right-wing opponent Keiko Fujimori. The Organization of American States has already declared the elections clean and fair, and despite Fujimori’s repeated accusations of voter fraud, there is little appetite in Peru to follow her lead. The 7.7 percent drop on the Lima Stock Exchange seems to confirm what everyone else knows: Pedro Castillo will be the Republic of Peru’s next president.

As the dust settles on an election cycle marked by anti-communist hysteria, questions are now turning to what a future Castillo government might look like. Peru has never had a president that remotely resembled Castillo — an indigenous, left-wing trade unionist. The only immediate comparisons, the policy-driven progressive politician Verónika Mendoza or the nationalist former president Ollanta Humala, actually only underline just how shocking it will be to see someone of Castillo’s social and political background in the Government Palace.

Fueling a general climate of uncertainty is the fact that Peru currently has the world’s highest official COVID-19 death toll, and has seen an 11 percent contraction of the economy and a 10 percent rise in poverty in just the last year. If the country’s acute social and economic crisis was a decisive factor in Castillo’s victory, it also will be posing questions about the incoming administration’s ability to govern — a question compounded by uncertainty over the composition of the future administration, Castillo’s uneasy relationship with his own party, Perú Libre, and how he will stand up to a majority opposition in Congress.

With so many question marks hanging over the future of Peru, there are still important takeaways from Castillo’s historic win that provide some indication of where the country may be headed, the battles that await his administration, and the strategies Castillo should pursue to turn the unprecedented left-wing triumph at the ballot box into a popular victory for the Peruvian people.


The Unlikeliest of Victors

On a purely symbolic level, it would be hard to overstate the impact of Castillo’s win. On the one hand, it comes on the heels of a conservative restoration in Ecuador and a general sense of disorientation among large parts of the Latin American left. However, with neighboring Chile and Colombia already marking a countertendency and the possibility of a new cycle of radical politics in the region, a Castillo government represents a major shot in the arm for a left-wing resurgence.

While Castillo held high-profile talks with progressive former heads of state like Uruguay’s José “Pepe” Mujica and Bolivia’s Evo Morales, he was careful on the campaign trail to downplay the question of foreign policy and regional integration (unlike Humala, who in 2011 successfully ran on a “Pink Tide” ticket). Partly a rearguard attempt to defuse right-wing attack campaigns — ”Venezuela” is a favorite hobbyhorse of the Peruvian press — Castillo made the elections squarely about the invisible Peruvian majority neglected by the nation’s political class.

In that same sense, Castillo’s candidacy amounted to a referendum on that class’s complete disconnect from popular concerns as a whole. The phrase, repeated ad nauseam, that “no one saw Castillo coming” actually became a self-indictment of the Peruvian right, whose erstwhile effective neoliberal populism — incarnated in the figure of former leader Alberto Fujimori — has completely crumbled in the wake of the region’s second neoliberal crisis.

Castillo, only the second president in modern Peru to come from the country’s interior provinces, heads a growing movement that could be called the “revenge of the regions.” As electoral analysts were quick to point out, he scored crushing victories in sixteen of the countries rural departments (states) where the social composition is heavily peasant and/or indigenous.

No doubt a reflection of his being branded the candidate for “deep Peru,” Castillo’s support (80 percent or above) in such regions as Ayacucho, Cusco, and Puno reflects a critical political shift. A detailed analysis of voting trends shows that his support tracks closest in those parts of Peru where extractive industries have been booming at the same time as poverty has also skyrocketed. In other words, as reflected in his campaign slogan, “No more poor people in a rich country,” and his stated intent to bankroll major public spending through taxation of mining industries, Castillo’s political project lies along one of the country’s major socioeconomic fault lines.

Though somewhat less tangible in political terms, a “regionalized” government carries profound historical implications that go to the heart of Peru’s national identity. From the original “myth of the Inca” — promising a redemptive reunification of the body politic and the overturning of colonial fragmentation — to José Carlos Mariátegui’s insistence that the “indigenous question” lies at the heart of the country’s overarching economic model, the conservative bent of Peru’s Lima-centered national project has always been haunted by the prospects of just such a “tempest in the Andes,” as Peruvian author Luis Valcárcel called it.

If Castillo’s presidency represents a historic first in terms of breaking the national barrier for regional political movements, there are still outstanding questions about what this would mean in terms of governance (absent a new plurinational constitution). In fact, Castillo’s twelve-page plan for government is generally short on details. Rightly or wrongly, this has been part of his success: putting forward a political vision centered around social mobilization and accumulated working-class power rather than technocratic quick fixes. Anahí Durand Guevara, Mendoza’s former political strategist and current member of Castillo’s technical team, cogently acknowledged this: whereas Mendoza’s progressive campaign was sometimes heavy on technical details, the immediacy of Castillo’s slogans for land reform and a new constitution played into a sense of popular empowerment on the campaign trail.

This, too, speaks to one of the other invisible sectors that promises to take center stage with a Castillo presidency. Anyone who has ever traveled throughout Peru will have recognized an important discrepancy between the country’s conservative reputation and the pervasiveness of social protest. According to Latinobarómetro, Peru is second only to Bolivia in terms of the percent of mobilized citizens participating in protests, whether it be through strike actions in the mining sector, local challenges to the abuses of the extractive industry, public sector protests around education and health, or large-scale demonstrations against endemic corruption. The combination of neoliberal precarity and regional fragmentation has long prevented these movements from cohering into a credible threat to the system, but, with Castillo, they may begin to play a major role in national politics.

A Crisis of the Peruvian Political Class

With all the virtues that Castillo possesses, it is hard to deny that the elections could have gone a different way had Keiko Fujimori not been his opponent. Peru’s most unpopular politician, the far-right candidate narrowly squeezed through the first-round elections with just 13 percent of the vote, beating out establishment-preferred candidate Hernando de Soto.

Keiko Fujimori holds a stone during a debate on May 30, 2021, in Arequipa, Peru. (Sebastian Castañeda / Pool-Getty Images)

Deliberately avoiding policy talk in lieu of anti-communist scaremongering, Fujimori managed to rally reluctant liberal and center-right sectors of the political class to her side. With her electoral base in Lima and the neighboring Callao District, together home to 40 percent of the country’s population, she nearly managed to carry the elections through a combination of patronage systems tied to her Fuerza Popular party and a relentless campaign of red-baiting that still enjoys traction among diverse social groups — from the frenzied Cold War optics of Peru’s ruling elites to urban popular sectors who associate left-wing politics with terrorism and criminality.

Fujimori’s defeat may spell the end of a right-wing political tradition that was already in crisis. First-round elections were indeed marked by increased fragmentation on the Right: the other leading candidates, Rafael López Aliaga and De Soto, are both Fujimori-adjacent politicians who under other circumstances wouldn’t have rivaled the mantle of the Fujimori clan. But the waning legitimacy of Fujimorismo — seen as the standard-bearer for institutional corruption and political impasse from her position in Congress — is part of a broader crisis of representation in Peru, where mercurial political parties and ephemeral party alliances are the norm.

Even in defeat, and with unprecedented party fragmentation in Congress, the political establishment as a whole and the conservative sector in particular will still hold a majority of legislative seats. In a semi-presidential system where power vacillates between parliament and the executive, Castillo will face a major uphill battle in promoting his reformist program — chief among them being the call for a Constituent Assembly for a new constitution. Moreover, at the time of writing, Congress has called an express session to pass a constitutional reform that would disallow the cuestión de confianza — the recourse available to the executive to dissolve Congress should it issue two votes of no confidence on a bill of national significance.

Peru’s Congress is the national legislature with the highest public disapproval rating in all of Latin America. In fact, the institution itself could be said to be the tip of the iceberg of what Antonio Gramsci called an “organic crisis”: systemic levels of dysfunction affecting all levels of society.

Recent protest movements have indeed taken congressional corruption as their main target, even giving former president Martín Vizcarra the popular mandate to dissolve the obstructionist legislature. But the sudden eruption of a national figure like Castillo might be enough to push the latent apolitical tendencies of anti-corruption sentiment toward a more systemic questioning of the country’s political model, connecting the dots between privatized extractive industries, deregulated markets, and widespread cronyism.

A Left-Wing Governing Alliance?

Following initial trepidations, Castillo’s Perú Libre and Mendoza’s Nuevo Perú, forged a vital electoral alliance that proved successful on the campaign trail. Drawing from Mendoza’s inner circle, Castillo was able in the final stretch of the campaign to put out a more robust governing program and announce an accomplished team of policy experts.

It remains to be seen if that electoral alliance can be carried over into a unified left-wing administration. Castillo will need the support of Mendoza’s Nuevo Perú and other left-wing parties not only to assemble his administration and broaden his political base but to assist in forming a progressive voting bloc in Congress.

One of the key figures around Castillo, both on the campaign trail and in the future government, is Pedro Francke, a former World Bank economist and adviser to Mendoza who has largely been credited with softening the soon-to-be president’s talking points on political economy. While promoting the protection of national industry, economic reactivation through targeted public investment, and renegotiating mining concessions, Francke has also been clear that a Castillo government will not nationalize industries, the independent national bank, or engage in price or currency controls.

While Francke’s reformist economic program paid dividends on the campaign trail, it may also put Castillo at odds with his own party leader, Vladimir Cerrón. Castillo’s relationship with Perú Libre is delicate after making the decision to distance himself from some of the party’s more radical platform positions; however, Castillo will need to maintain their support if he hopes to have any chance of pursuing his legislative agenda in Congress, where Perú Libre has the largest bloc of seats.

We’ll soon see what type of balance Castillo will strike, between the more radical program of Perú Libre or the reform-minded advances of Francke and other experts from Mendoza’s circle. A sober assessment of the political terrain would begin by recognizing that the moderated campaign platform put forward by Castillo was just enough to convince some anti-Fujimori voters that he is not an extremist — which is to say, they may not even necessarily support the platform itself.

More importantly, Castillo still has a long way to go to consolidate power. Pending tasks like building up a real party infrastructure with mass participation should be on the top of the agenda. Likewise, stabilizing the economy and reactivating growth will be vital for Castillo’s campaign promises of employment stimulus and increased spending in public services like education and health care. But just how far a Castillo government can go in implementing a radical economic program will depend to a large extent on how far Peruvian society itself is prepared to go along with him.

As Mike Davis and others have claimed, Peru was the birthplace of “neoliberal populism” under Alberto Fujimori. Whatever is to follow, that this far-right version of neoliberalism — and Fujimori’s political heiress — was dealt a decisive blow by an avowed leftist is a triumph worth celebrating.