Peru is holding presidential elections on Sunday and the two people who won the first round of elections on April 11 to qualify for this runoff represent vastly different classes.
By law, any president of Peru must be born on Peruvian soil. But few of the country’s past leaders know that soil like the frontrunning candidate in the current electoral race – the son of Andean peasant farmers, who grew up in poverty.
On a recent morning, Pedro Castillo wore a woollen poncho, sandals made from old car tyres and a traditional wide-brimmed straw hat as he tended to his cows on his farm in Chugur, a tiny hamlet seven hours’ drive from the city of Cajamarca.
“When you see that your children wear the same clothes, sleep in the same clothes, wake up and go to school again in the same clothes, you realise the political class has been using you,” he told the Guardian, using the homely language that chimes with rural Peruvians who feel left behind by the country’s two decades of economic growth.
“This is a battle between the rich and the poor, the struggle between the … master and the slave,” Castillo told reporters from Peru’s north in comments broadcast on local television.
Amid mudslinging on both sides, Castillo has been labelled a “terrorist” but responds that the “real terrorists are hunger, misery, neglect, inequality, injustice”.
And although Castillo’s political experience is largely limited to leading a national teachers’ strike in 2017, many Peruvians identify with a life experience that reflects many of the harsh realities they also face.
“People don’t know there are thousands of children living in poverty and now, due to the pandemic, in extreme poverty,” said Castillo, who has taught for more than 25 years in rural schools.
The rival candidate has a very different background.
Rightwing Keiko Fujimori, 46, who narrowly lost in the previous two presidential runoff votes, is technically tied in opinion polls with Pedro Castillo, a former teachers’ union leader who belongs to the hard-left Peru Libre party and holds a lead of just two percentage points over his rival.
Fujimori struck a more lonely figure when she was pictured in the courtyard of an aristocratic mansion in the southern city of Arequipa signing a pledge to uphold democracy, surrounded by elite figures including the rightwing Venezuelan opposition leader Leopoldo López and Álvaro Vargas Llosa, whose father, the novelist Mario Vargas Llosa, endorsed the candidate as the “lesser of two evils” .
The Peruvian elite has rallied around Fujimori, terrified at the prospect of a victory for Castillo, whose Marxist party backs widespread resource nationalisation, higher taxes, import substitution and pledges to rewrite the constitution for “the people”.
After Castillo’s unexpectedly strong showing in the first round, “our business aristocracy panicked and opted for fear”, said the political scientist and newspaper columnist Gonzalo Banda. Several corporations have helped Keiko’s campaign with apparently free advertising and electoral propaganda on food handouts in poor neighbourhoods.
Castillo has done little to moderate his message, lambasting the “golden salaries” of the despised political class and pledging to overturn the “old, corrupt state”.
“No more poor people in a rich country,” is his campaign motto. It rings true with millions of supporters at home in Cajamarca, the region with the country’s most lucrative goldmines yet one of its poorest and most neglected.
[P]olls show that Fujimori had the highest rejection rate of any of the candidates in the first round. She is also the object of Peru’s most enduring political movement of the last two decades – antifujimorismo
That rejection goes beyond the legacy of her father Alberto Fujimori, who is serving a 25-year sentence over death-squad killings and rampant corruption. Keiko has also racked up accusations of graft and could face a 30-year jail term if convicted.
She has spent more than a year in pre-trial detention accused of receiving more than $17m in illegal campaign funds and heading a criminal organisation, her political party Fuerza Popular. She denies the allegations, which she describes as politically motivated.
Her confrontational tactics – forcing the resignation of a former president and a leadership clash with her own younger brother Kenji – have also made her hate figure in her own right..
This election came about when an economic crisis triggered by the pandemic led to the former president Martín Vizcarra being removed by congress in November 2020, in what is described by some as a coup. He was replaced by an interim president, a relative unknown right winger named Manuel Merino. This led to demonstrations in which two demonstrators were killed and Merino had to resign after just five days in office. He was replaced as interim president by a more centrist figure Francisco Sagasti.
Peru is reeling from the worst per capita covid-19 death rate in the world, a dubious honor that occurred after re-evaluation of the data last week led to more than a doubling of the reported deaths, from 69,342 to 180,764. Even before, it had one of the highest death rates.
Vaccinations are in extremely short supply in Latin America.
Regarding the slow vaccination rollout in the Americas, the [Pan American Health Organization (PAHO) Director Carissa Etienne] called on the global community once again to help expand the region’s vaccine coverage.
“In our region of nearly 700 million people, just 37 million have been fully vaccinated against Covid, I hope you agree that this is completely unacceptable.”
Covid-19 vaccines in Latin America are in perilously short supply. Etienne previously told reporters on May 19: “Indeed just 3% of Latin Americans have been fully vaccinated against COVID-19 and we still have a long way to go to ensure that everyone is protected.”
Whoever becomes the new president is going to have a major challenge in dealing with the crisis.