Pedro Castillo, a left-wing rural teacher-turned-politician, was Monday declared the winner of Peru’s presidential election, more than a month after the highly polarised vote was held.
Results of the June 6 poll remained in limbo for weeks as Keiko Fujimori, his right-wing opponent and daughter of former conservative autocrat Alberto Fujimori, alleged fraud and refused to acknowledge Castillo’s slender lead of around 44,000 votes.
The runoff poll was held after Castillo and Fujimori emerged as frontrunners in an acrimonious general election in April, which saw a total of 18 candidates sparring for the top job.
The South American nation, rich in copper reserves, has in recent years been mired in intense political turmoil, changing four presidents and two parliaments in five years. While Castillo’s win is being seen as a major symbolic victory for the left in Peru, experts believe his razor-thin margin, that too in a runoff election, means he lacks the political muscle to implement ambitious reforms.
Castillo, 51, a former school teacher and union leader, first rose to fame four years ago, when he led thousands of teachers on a successful strike for better pay.
He then disappeared from the political scene for a while, reappearing as a candidate in this year’s presidential elections, in which he campaigned on the platform of nationalising Peru’s massive mining sector, and creating 10 lakh jobs in a year.
A political outsider born to peasant farmers, he channelled support from the country’s rural and Indigenous population against ruling elites, and popularised the phrase “No more poor in a rich country.”
While a member of the Peru Libre, a Marxist party, Castillo has been described as socially conservative, advocating reintroducing the death penalty during the elections as a means of tackling crime.
He was also seen as having links with more radical leftist politicians in the continent, after a top party aide praised Venezuela’s authoritarian leader Nicolas Maduro for consolidating power. He has been criticised by the Peruvian Nobel laureate Mario Vargas Llosa, who has said Castillo “represents the disappearance of democracy and freedom in Peru.”
On July 28 – the 200th anniversary of Peru’s independence from Spain– Castillo will be sworn in as the country’s president.
Keiko Fujimori, a member of the Peruvian parliament, was running for the third time to clinch the presidency, and had the backing of pro-business groups, as well as former military leaders.
She also found support from many Peruvians who have bitter memories of the bloody Shining Path communist insurgency of the 1980s, in which over 70,000 people died or disappeared and the Peruvian state was brought to its knees.
Fujimori’s father, former President Alberto Fujimori, was credited with defeating the guerillas, as well as for introducing reforms that gave the country steady economic growth. He was criticised for human rights abuses and corruption, however, and is currently serving a 25-year prison sentence.
Fujimori herself is being probed for money laundering and corruption– allegations she has dismissed as politically motivated.
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Why did it take so long to announce the winner?
After the June 6 polls –whose fairness has been endorsed by the US and the EU– Fujimori made claims of election fraud, and asked that up to 2 lakh votes be thrown out – mostly from rural and Indigenous areas where Castillo is popular. A highly divided country resulted in many supporting Fujimori’s claims, with a poll finding 31 per cent believing them to be credible.
Fujimori’s critics called her claims baseless, and compared the situation her followers created with the right-wing frenzy that gripped the US after former president Donald Trump similarly denied the results of the November 2020 election, as well as in Israel, where longtime leader Benjamin Netanyahu blamed a “deep state” conspiracy for his defeat this year.
Ahead of the Monday announcement, Fujimori said that she accepted the election results, but continued to insist that Castillo had stolen thousands of votes from her.
Peru, which is the world’s second-largest copper producer, faces severe challenges due to the Covid-19 pandemic, with the country recording the world’s highest per capita death toll. The economic toll is also severe, with one-third of the country being pushed into poverty.
Castillo has promised to expand Peru’s public health and education services, and plans to raise revenues from the mining sector. Although he initially proposed nationalising copper and hydrocarbon industries, his campaign later softened the proposal, saying he would rather increase taxes on profits. According to an Associated Press report, those taxes currently exceed $10,000 per tonne. Castillo has also promised a new constitution that will allow the state to play a greater role in the economy.
Experts, however, believe that Castillo would find it highly difficult to carry out these reforms, given the fractured mandate, and entrenched opposition in parliament, the military, the media and the elites. The leftwing candidate’s victory is contrasted with past wins by popular figures such as Evo Morales in neighbouring Bolivia and Lula da Silva in Brazil, who came to power with massive mandates that allowed them to take far-reaching decisions.