With 95.8% of votes tallied following the 11 April first-round presidential election, Pedro Castillo of the hard left Peru Libre (PL) party is on 19.18%, followed by Keiko Fujimori of Fuerza Popular (FP) on 13.27%. Close behind are the ultra-conservative Rafael Lopez Aliaga with 11.69% and the free-market economist Hernando de Soto with 11.64%. If this tendency remains unchanged, Castillo would face Fujimori in a run-off vote scheduled for 6 June, which would represent a polarizing contest pitting anti-leftism against anti-Fujimorismo. If one of Lopez Aliaga or de Soto were to overtake Fujimori, the run-off would still amount to a duel between Left and Right.
It has become a truism that run-offs in Peru tend to be a battle in which the “least worst” candidate prevails. The problem with a Castillo versus Fujimori run-off is that so many voters find both candidates fundamentally objectionable; bear in mind that two-thirds of the electorate voted for neither Castillo, a former teacher and union leader, nor Fujimori, the daughter of imprisoned former president Alberto Fujimori (1990-2000), who is herself accused of corruption and whose obstructionism fed the last five years of political crisis. One of the key questions in the days and weeks ahead is how much each candidate moves to appease their respective anti-votes – together with how successful they are in exploiting voters’ fears and preconceptions about their rival. This will also determine how sizeable the eventual protest vote will be.
Two crucial and inter-related questions spring from Castillo’s rise to the run-off:
Firstly, where will Castillo grow his support? On the Left, sixth-placed Veronika Mendoza’s voters will be receptive to many of Castillo’s economic policy proposals but do not support the PL candidate’s social conservatism. Equally, many social conservatives may have deep reservations about aspects of Castillo’s economic platform.
Secondly, how much will Castillo tack to the center to attract moderates? Recall that both Alan Garcia and Ollanta Humala made the journey from Left to Center, albeit over a prolonged period of time. However, Castillo may decide that channeling anti-establishment, anti-Lima sentiment must remain his political lodestar, particularly if his rival is Fujimori, who he will paint as the incarnation of establishment corruption. The fact that Castillo is relatively little known makes it difficult to predict how he might move. On the one hand, his lack of trajectory has given him popular appeal; on the other, his alleged links to the political wing of the Shining Path (SL) guerrilla group could yet represent a serious liability.
Fujimori’s greatest weakness is extensive anti-Fujimorista sentiment that mobilized against her most notably in 2016. However, if her place in the run-off is confirmed, she will look to re-cast herself as a bulwark against radical Venezuela-style leftism and attract voters who are suspicious of Castillo proposals including the nationalization of key sectors of the economy. These fears extend well beyond de Soto and Lopez Aliaga; given his past association with Fujimorismo, de Soto should back Fujimori.
While his chances look slim, de Soto would be a much more palatable choice for centrists than Fujimori. If de Soto were to overtake Fujimori, he would become a clearer favorite against Castillo. However, many voters might find a run-off involving Lopez Aliaga even more unpalatable than Fujimori.