April 26, 2021

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PERU: The lowdown on hard-left outsider vying for the presidency

BY Nicholas Watson

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( 5 mins)
  • The hard-left presidential candidate Pedro Castillo comfortably leads the polls with just under six weeks to go before the 6 June presidential run-off vote.
  • Castillo has successfully tapped into voter discontent beyond Lima, which has surged amid the pandemic, though his greatest asset could be his rival Keiko Fujimori’s unpopularity.
  • Castillo’s weaknesses include his alleged links to terrorism and an awkward power dynamic within the Peru Libre (PL) party; scrutiny on both issues will intensify in the days ahead.
  • It is too early to say that last week’s signs of moderation from Castillo are unambiguous or irreversible.

Three recent polls from Ipsos, IEP, and Datum all give Castillo a convincing lead over Fujimori. IEP puts Castillo on 41.5% versus 21.5% for Fujimori. Datum gives Castillo a 15-point lead. Undecided voters total 15-18%, while 15-21% of the electorate apparently plan to cast a spoiled or blank ballot.

Strengths

To appreciate Castillo’s strengths, it helps to understand what brought him his first-round victory. Poverty reduction was already stagnating pre-pandemic and has gone into reverse since the Covid crisis. The economy contracted 11.1% in 2020. Around 60% of the population is now either poor or vulnerable to falling into poverty. Almost one in four children under five years old in rural areas suffered chronic undernutrition in 2020. In this context, Castillo’s slogan that there should be “no more poor in a rich country” has been highly effective, as is his canny branding as a plain-speaking teacher from a humble background.

Castillo’s use of teachers who belong to his breakaway teaching union as grassroots organizers also mobilized voters during the first-round campaign. It helped that one of his main rivals on the Left, Veronika Mendoza, who finished sixth on 11 April with 7.8% of the vote, alienated many voters who favor a stronger state but who were uncomfortable with her socially liberal agenda. Lastly, Castillo now faces a deeply unpopular rival, whose attempted reinvention as a guarantor of democracy will be seen by many as a grotesque mockery.

Weaknesses

Castillo has some important vulnerabilities. In territorial terms, he is weak in Lima, which accounts for around one third of the electorate; in the first round, Castillo came fifth in the capital, though the IEP poll carried out last week suggests he is now in a technical tie in the capital. More significantly, Castillo must contend with two political burdens:

  • It is alleged that Castillo has links with the Movement for Amnesty and Fundamental Rights (Movadef), which is the political wing of the Shining Path (SL) Maoist terrorist group. Expect Fujimori to hammer Castillo on this issue during the campaign.
  • The Peru Libre party boss, Vladimir Cerron, has been convicted of corruption when he was governor of Junin, and he faces a series of other corruption allegations. Cerron’s corruption and admiration for Venezuelan-style socialism is not only a potential electoral liability but could also be a problem if Castillo ends up winning, and Cerron acts as a power in the shadows. Note that the party manifesto features Cerron prominently and does not even mention Castillo. Although on 22 April, Castillo was emphatic that he – and not Cerron – would be in charge should he win the election, doubts over the exact power dynamic are likely to persist.

Castillo’s other weaknesses – that he is inexperienced, lacks the training for high office, has radical ideas – may be self-evident. Still, they can all be turned on their head and re-framed as strengths, given the public mood of frustration and disillusionment with the status quo.

What to watch

Policy platform: Castillo initially insisted that he would not deviate from the PL manifesto. However, last week the candidate recast the document as a draft list of ideas and ideals – a sign perhaps of policy tweaks to come (as well as a worrying level of improvisation in the PL policy platform). Even Castillo appears to recognize that the manifesto needs updating; it was written before the pandemic and does not mention Covid-19. The document does propose increasing the health budget to 10% of GDP (to be funded from new taxes on multinational companies).

Moderation: Recall that Ollanta Humala won the presidency in 2011 after abandoning radicalism and tacking to the political center. Clearly, Castillo will not want to alienate his first-round voters. However, as the campaign progresses and the Fujimori camp intensifies its attacks against Castillo, he might consider making a greater commitment to more moderate positions. There were early signs of that late last week when Castillo appeared to row back from previous declarations that he would dissolve Congress should it block his drive to rewrite the constitution.

Polls and alliances: Any pragmatic shift will depend on the polls, alliances that Castillo strikes, and/or pressure from civil society. If Castillo maintains his poll lead and Fujimori’s anti-vote does not soften, Castillo may not see any need to moderate significantly. It will therefore be important to watch whether undecided voters start to shift meaningfully to Fujimori. An alliance with Mendoza could alter some policy positions, though probably more on social issues than on the economy. Mendoza has already signaled her willingness to engage with Castillo. Meanwhile, pressure from civil society is already in evidence as various organizations have called on both candidates to sign up to a pledge to abide by basic democratic principles and recognize fundamental rights.

Trust: If any of these pressures encourage Castillo to move towards the political center-ground, he could still face a trust issue. This is where the figure of Cerron could be a major liability for Castillo because Fujimori could continue her line of attack that her rival is a “wolf in sheep’s clothing” by pointing to Cerron’s radicalism behind Castillo’s façade of (relative) moderation. However, Castillo can counter with the argument that his rival is Peru’s least trustworthy and most authoritarian politician, which underlines how Fujimori’s many flaws remain Castillo’s greatest asset.

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