Peruvian voters face choice between 2 polarizing populists


LIMA, Peru — Peruvian voters will choose between two polarizing populist candidates Sunday in a presidential runoff held as the coronavirus pandemic continues to batter the Andean country and festering anger has led to fears of more political stability.

Political novice Pedro Castillo and Keiko Fujimori, making her third run for the presidency, have both promised COVID-19 vaccines for all and other strategies to alleviate the health emergency that has killed more than 180,000 people and pushed millions into poverty. The election follows a statistical revision from Peru’s government that more than doubled the death toll previously acknowledged by officials.

The pandemic not only has collapsed Peru’s medical and cemetery infrastructure, left millions unemployed and highlighted longstanding inequalities in the country, it has also deepened people’s mistrust of government as it mismanaged the COVID-19 response and a secret vaccination drive for the well-connected erupted into a national scandal.

Amid protests and corruption allegations, the South American country cycled through three presidents in November. Now, analysts warn this election could be another tipping point for people’s simmering frustrations and bring more political instability.

“I think in both situations the risk of social unrest is high. It’s a time bomb,” said Claudia Navas, an analyst with the global firm Control Risks. “I think if Castillo wins, people who support Fujimori or support the continuation to some extent of the economic model may protest.”

But Navas said “a more complex scenario will evolve if Fujimori wins because Castillo has been able to create a discourse that has played well in some rural communities with regards to the social divide and saying that political and economic elites have orchestrated things to remain in power and maintain the social inequalities.”

Polls have shown the candidates virtually tied heading into Sunday’s runoff. In the first round of voting, featuring 18 candidates, neither received more than 20% support and both are strongly opposed by sectors of Peruvian society.

Fujimori, a conservative former congresswoman, has promised various bonuses to people, including a $2,500 one-time payment to each family with at least one COVID-19 victim. She has also proposed distributing 40% of a tax for the extraction of minerals, oil or gas among families who live near those areas.

Her supporters include the wealthy, several players of the national soccer team and Mario Vargas Llosa, Peru’s foremost author and the winner of a Nobel Prize in Literature. Vargas, who lost a presidential election three decades ago to the candidate’s father, Alberto Fujimori, has moved from calling her the “daughter of the dictator” in 2016 to considering her to be the representative of “freedom and progress.”

Keiko Fujimori herself has been imprisoned as part of a graft investigation though she was later released. Her father governed between 1990 and 2000 and is serving a 25-year sentence for corruption and the killings of 25 people. She has promised to free him should she win.

Castillo until recently was a rural schoolteacher in the country’s third-poorest district, deep in the Andes. The son of illiterate peasants entered politics by leading a teachers’ strike. While his stance on nationalizing key sectors of the economy has softened, he remains committed to rewriting the constitution that was approved under the regime of Fujimori’s father.

Among Castillo’s supporters are former Bolivia President Evo Morales and former Uruguay President José Mujica, who in a conversation via Facebook told Castillo on Thursday to “not fall into authoritarianism.”

Peru is the second largest copper exporter in the world and mining accounts for almost 10% of its GDP and 60% of its exports, so Castillo’s initial proposal to nationalize the nation’s mining industry set off alarm bells among business leaders. But regardless of who gets picked to succeed President Francisco Sagasti on July 28, investors will remain skittish.

“A victory for left-wing populist Pedro Castillo in Peru’s presidential election on Sunday would probably send local financial markets into a tailspin, but we doubt that investors would have much to cheer about even if his rival Keiko Fujimori wins,” Nikhil Sanghani, emerging markets economist with Capital Economics, wrote in an investors note Friday.

“Fujimori is a controversial figure who is under investigation for corruption charges. Given Peru’s recent history, it’s not hard to imagine that this could spark impeachment proceedings,” he said.

Garcia Cano reported from Mexico City.

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