The Fight to Transform Peru Has Only Just Begun

A month since teacher and labor activist Pedro Castillo was elected Peruvian president, his far-right opponents are still trying to stop him from taking office. The attempt to overturn the election shows the elites' refusal to accept defeat — and the dangers the Left faces as it seeks a break from the country's neoliberal model.

Peru's president-elect Pedro Castillo of the Peru Libre party, 2021. (Jose Carlos Angulo / AFP via Getty Images)

The Peruvian election last month was closely fought — but the outcome decisive. Final results saw Pedro Castillo, a Catholic, rural teacher from Cajamarca in Peru’s far north, edge out his far-right opponent Keiko Fujimori by barely forty-two thousand votes. Yet the losing candidate, the daughter of ex-dictator Alberto Fujimori, has cried fraud — and launched a legal battle to overturn the result.

Indeed, Fujimori’s side of the political spectrum isn’t used to accepting such defeats. This is, after all, a country that has traditionally been made into part of the United States’ “backyard.” No progressive, left-wing or a left-nationalist government has been in power since the military regime of General Juan Velasco Alvarado in the late 1960s and ’70s. The June 6 result heralded a dramatic shift away from this conservative tradition.

The presidents of Argentina, Bolivia, Nicaragua, and Venezuela have all congratulated Castillo as the president-elect. But even weeks after the vote, the Fujimori camp appears to be determined to seize power, perhaps through a process like the November 2019 coup against Evo Morales in Bolivia.

Pedro vs. Keiko

The two candidates represented drastically different alternatives for Peru — socially and culturally as well as ideologically.

Castillo’s image as a humble rural teacher and union leader who led a successful national teachers’ strike in 2017 resonated so strongly that the final vote tally was over 80 percent in many rural areas. This “deep Peru” also has a profoundly indigenous character (especially Cusco) and strongly rejected rule by the Lima-based oligarchy.

This first-round campaign was also remarkable for mostly ignoring social media (Castillo did not have a Twitter or an Instagram account until after this first vote) and embracing traditional face-to-face campaigning throughout the country.

Throughout the mass meetings for Castillo’s Free Peru party, he spoke of the need to end the vicious cycle of corruption, and recover and renationalize key industries, utilities (especially water), and natural resources. Castillo also embraced the popular demand for a new constitution and the creation of a Constituent Assembly, like the one recently founded in Chile.

During his campaign, he also opposed the US intervention in Venezuela and promised that the country would leave the “Lima Group” comprised of the region’s key right-wing governments that push for the overthrow of Nicolás Maduro.

Keiko Fujimori countered this with a blend of red-baiting, fearmongering, pork-barrel populism, and huge advertising spending in all private media. This was especially powerful in Lima and its metropolitan area, as well as the country’s coastal regions. Throughout the campaign, massive billboards projected text and images such as “Yes to Democracy! No to Communism!” and “We don’t want to be another Venezuela!” The desperation of her campaign was palpable.

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

One of her most ridiculed promises was the proposed “water bonus” to help with the cost of utilities throughout Peru’s central and northern regions. It was pointed out many times that it was her father, Alberto Fujimori, who was responsible for the privatization of water utilities to start with.

Her father’s legacy weighed heavily on her image and ability to convince Peruvians that she could be trusted to run the government in a manner different to the conservative dictator. Indeed, Alberto Fujimori’s first arrival in the presidential palace in 1990 was accompanied by a series of reforms and initiatives that were the staple of other authoritarians in the region.

These included the disappearances and assassinations of social and trade union activists through the Grupo Colina death squad, the forced sterilization of more than two hundred fifty thousand indigenous women, the privatization of state industries, and the theft of hundreds of millions of dollars, the last of which crimes handed Alberto a twenty-five-year jail sentence.

The rejection of Fujimorism and the neoliberal model that has dominated Peru for the last thirty years provided Castillo and the Peruvian left with the springboard to rise to executive power. Yet this is what Fujimori is now working to undo.

The Coup in Progress

No sooner than the country’s central electoral authority, the National Jury of Elections (JNE), announced the results, Fujimori denounced the elections as “fraudulent” and began a legal battle to turn the tide in her favor. She has demanded the annulation of almost two hundred thousand votes across rural regions, called for an “international audit,” submitted almost a dozen appeals for the annulment of the election itself, and even claiming that her loss owed to a global “leftist” conspiracy.

At the same time, a letter signed by several retired and former military figures calling for a “military intervention” to prevent Castillo from forming a government began circulating through private and social media. A tremendous sense of tension and polarization has engulfed the country since the first week following the election, as Castillo’s supporters began organizing marches to prevent Fujimori from attempting to steal the result, and Fujimori’s supporters rallied against what they perceived as a fraudulent election and the imminent arrival of “communism” with Castillo’s victory.

Several members of the National Office of Electoral Processes (ONPE) were attacked by Fujimori supporters. Physical attacks and death threats have also been reported against other members of the legal institutions, such as the head of the anti-corruption prosecutor, José Domingo Pérez. Pro-Fujimori groups have also attacked the groups of peasants and indigenous activists rallying outside the headquarters of the JNE. Many international commentators have compared Fujimori’s strategy with Trump’s reaction following the result of the 2020 election and his subsequent attempts to overturn the result.

However almost a month since election day, Fujimori’s legal options have seriously dwindled. Almost all observer missions, ranging from the United States to the Organization of the American States (OAS) and the European Union, have recognized the election as having been free, fair, and transparent.

As the JNE takes its time dismissing the last of the legal claims presented by Fujimori, the dictator’s daughter is facing the possibility of spending up to 30 years in jail on charges of bribery, corruption, and illegal financing of her election campaigns in 2011 and 2016. In mid-June, state prosecutors recommended preventative detention against her, citing high flight risk.

With the situation looking increasingly desperate for the far-right candidate, other right-wing figures from inside and outside the country’s legal institutions have seemingly joined her assault on both Castillo and the electoral authorities.

The most prominent case involved the resignation of one of the judges of the JNE, Luis Arce Córdova, against what he alleged was “a lack of transparency” within the legal body. As the JNE requires full quorum of four judges to make the final decision on the election results, his resignation was seen as an attempt to further stall the process and open the possibility of a repeat election. If no president has been recognized by July 28, a new interim president selected by congress would need to organize a new electoral process.

Keiko Fujimori and Pedro Castillo during the final televised debate in Arequipa ahead of the election. (Martin Mejia / AFP via Getty Images)

Another prominent case has involved Vladimiro Montesinos, a former head of Peru’s National Intelligence Service (SIN) and a close ally of the Alberto Fujimori, contacting former officers of the Peruvian military with proposals to bribe at least three members of the JNE in order to rule in favor of a Fujimori victory. The plot is now being  investigated by both the Peruvian Navy and the state prosecutor.

Rafael López Aliaga, another ultraconservative candidate and Opus Dei member who finished third in the first round of the elections, has also participated in the pro-Fujimori marches, repeating the conspiracy theories regarding the “danger of communism” and adding fuel to the pro-coup sentiment. In one TV appearance he even stated that Castillo’s working-class voters should be “punished” through a devaluation of Sol (Peru’s national currency), and the economic damage its bound to bring. Likewise, Jorge Montoya, the most prominent MP for his party and a former naval officer, had also alleged “irregularities” in the electoral process and called for the annulment of the results.

On the international stage, over a dozen former conservative, liberal, and far-right heads of state from across Latin America as well as Spain have pressured Peru’s electoral authorities not to recognize Pedro Castillo’s triumph. Protests in support of Fujimori’s legal campaign came from Álvaro Uribe and Andrés Pastrana of Colombia, José María Aznar of Spain, Mauricio Macri of Argentina, and Felipe Calderón of Mexico.

This was further reinforced by the ongoing media offensive against Castillo’s image by the press in United States, Spain, and other countries referring to Castillo as a “self-proclaimed” winner and refusing to recognize the final results.

The most notable such case was Mario Vargas Llosa, the most prominent liberal critic of left-wing governments across Latin America and the enemy-turned-friend of Keiko Fujimori. Once an opposition figure against her father, Llosa was quick to throw his support behind Keiko during the campaign for the second round, echoing her message of a “choice between democracy and communism” while warning that Castillo’s presidency would lead Peru along the path of Venezuela.

That said, faced with the clear electoral outcome, several right-wing and centrist opposition figures have either distanced themselves from the pro-coup narrative, condemned Fujimori for her actions, or even held meetings with Castillo to discuss the possibility of forming coalitions in congress. George Forsyth of the right-wing National Victory (NV) party condemned the crisis within JNE as an attempted “coup” by Fujimori, while the Purple Party of current interim president Francisco Sagasti recognized Pedro Castillo as a president-elect.

This lack of a joint agreement between the country’s right-wing and liberal political forces has given Pedro Castillo both time and space to continue organizing mass rallies against the slow-motion coup, while at the same time meeting with local and regional authorities across the country in preparation of assuming the presidency.

On the international stage, his victory has been recognized by many both former and current progressive heads of state across Latin America, including Alberto Fernández of Argentina, Luis Arce of Bolivia, Nicolás Maduro of Venezuela, Evo Morales, Rafael Correa, Fernando Lugo, Lula da Silva, and others.

Lessons From Bolivia

Many parallels can be drawn between the developments in Peru and the coup d’état against Morales in Bolivia following the October 2019 general elections. Unable to tolerate a left-wing indigenous government governing Bolivia for another five years, the right-wing coalition consisting of the urban liberal elite represented by Carlos Mesa, the far right and Christian fundamentalists led by Fernando Camacho, and its newfound allies within the military and the police staged a coup and brought Jeanine Añez to power by forcing the resignation of Evo Morales and his entire cabinet.

The OAS played a key role by providing a false report that indicated irregularities and fraud in the October 20 general election, emboldening the far right to take political power, while the governments of the United States, its allies in Latin America, and the European Union provided the new regime with a newfound international legitimacy to carry out repression and mass privatizations.

Keiko Fujimori and her backers across the Peruvian state and the other far-right parties have sought to follow the same pattern in the hopes of bringing her to power or forcing another election. However, Pedro Castillo and his allies have heeded the lessons of Bolivia and took several preliminary steps to prevent this.

The night of the election, Castillo was the first to proclaim, “no to fraud!” to ensure that the votes across country’s interior and rural regions were counted fairly and accurately. The following day, he made a strategic decision to organize mass rallies in Lima in defense of the popular vote, followed by similar marches across the country.

Castillo’s legal team also played a key part in dismissing and delegitimizing most of Fujimori’s claims about supposed fraud. Meanwhile, even before his formal recognition as president-elect his economic team began negotiations with both the trade union and social movements on one side, and the country’s economic and business elite and representatives on the other. Castillo himself began actively touring the country, holding meeting with mayors, governors, and provincial representatives, as well as the representatives of the United States, the OAS, and the European Union.

At the same time, Fujimori has failed to build the kind of a broad liberal-conservative-fascist coalition — including parts of the military and police leadership — that would allow her to legitimately proclaim victory. Her actions have added fuel to the fire of uncertainty and chaos slowly engulfing the country, but she has lacked the decisiveness and the strategic planning that the Bolivian opposition had on its side. Her last-ditch gambit to revise the results and force a new election was a demand for an “international audit” of the results conducted by the OAS. But this has not garnered the support she hoped for.

However, Fujimori’s immediate failure to stop Castillo from assuming the presidency does not mean the danger has passed entirely. He will be forced to contend with a hostile (but mostly unpopular) congress, where his Free Peru party currently only has thirty-seven out of a hundred thirty seats. Together with the five seats held by allies from the “Together for Peru” coalition, the Left’s combined legislative power is just under one-third of congress.

Fujimori’s Popular Force party currently has twenty-four seats, Alliance for Progress fifteen, Aliaga’s Popular Renewal thirteen, and Podemos Perú five, bringing the far-right and conservative bloc to a total fifty-seven seats, not far off from half the total. Centrist-neoliberal parties like Popular Action, We Are Peru, Avanza País, and the Purple Party together garnered thirty-one seats.

There are also further threats to Castillo’s plans to change Peru. The Peruvian military and police are still dominated by the dogmas of the US-based “School of the Americas,” and private media have spent three months seeking above all to demonize and delegitimize the Left in every way imaginable. Further opposition to hostility comes from the Lima-based economic elite and continuous pressure from the United States.

The battle for Peru had only just begun, and it’s the task of all anti-imperialists of the world to defend the first left-wing government in decades.