In a historic victory for the Left, Pedro Castillo is sworn in as Peru’s new President

Print edition : August 27, 2021

President Pedro Castillo at his inauguration ceremony at the National Congress in Lima on July 28. Photo: Karel Navarro/Peruvian Presidency/AFP

Keiko Fujimori, who lost to Castillo by a margin of slightly more than 44,000 votes, addressing the media on June 28 after delivering a letter to the government requesting an international audit of the vote. Photo: Sebastian Castaneda/REUTERS

The election of Pedro Castillo as President is a historic victory for the Left in a country that for the past three decades was a bastion of the right wing.

It took more than a month for the authorities in Peru to validate the election of the 51-year-old Pedro Castillo, the candidate of the Left, as President. Castillo was duly sworn into office on July 28 despite the efforts of the powerful right-wing establishment in the capital, Lima, led by Keiko Fujimori, the defeated candidate, to manipulate the final results of the closely fought election. Keiko Fujimori, the daughter of the former right-wing President Alberto Fujimori, wanted the election authorities to invalidate more than 200,000 votes that were cast in the remote Andean areas of the country, which voted massively for Castillo. After more than a month of hearing complaints from the losing side, almost all of them frivolous, Peru’s election commission finally had to declare Castillo the winner.

In a last-ditch attempt to stop Castillo from being sworn in, Keiko Fujimori had demanded an “international audit” of the vote despite election observers from all over the continent declaring the voting process free and fair. The Peruvian government had rejected the demand. She had wanted the Organisation of American States (OAS) to look into the matter. Throughout its chequered history, the OAS has fulfilled the commands of the United States. It was discredited even more after the controversial role it played in overturning the results of the elections in Bolivia in 2019. Evo Morales, the left-wing President, won the 2019 elections, but an OAS fact-finding commission ruled without any convincing proof that there had been ballot stuffing in the strongholds of the Left. The OAS report prompted a coup and led to violence. The goal of removing Morales was achieved, but in the elections that followed after a year, the Left won yet again with a convincing margin.

A political unknown

The final margin of victory for Castillo was only slightly more than 44,000 votes. In the 2016 elections, Keiko Fujimori lost by an even smaller margin to Pedro Kuczynski. All the same, it was a historic victory for the Left in a country that had become a bastion of the right wing in the past three decades. Castillo, a primary school teacher and son of peasants, was a political unknown when it was announced that he would be the candidate of the Free Peru Party. The Marxist politician Vladimir Cerron, a Cuban-educated medical doctor and a former provincial Governor, is the party’s leader but was not allowed to run because of trumped-up corruption charges. Castillo, though not a member of the party, was a last-minute choice. Castillo spent his early youth working as a campesino (peasant) in the Andean region. He later financed his studies working as a waiter in Lima. Castillo stood out in a crowded field of candidates because he was the only avowed left-wing politician in the fray. Most of the others, led by Keiko Fujimori, were right wingers or free marketeers.

This was Keiko Fujimori’s third attempt to win the presidential election. Winning was particularly important for her this time as it would have provided her immunity from serving a long jail term for corruption. She was released from prison on parole only last year after spending more than a year inside on charges of money laundering. She was appealing against her sentencing. Her father is currently serving time in jail after being convicted on corruption charges.

Also read: Peru's radical new President

Keiko Fujimori’s party is still questioning the legitimacy of Castillo’s victory, claiming without any basis that votes were stolen from her. She called on her supporters “to defend the Constitution” and not allow “communism to destroy it to take power definitely”. She told them to keep on protesting on the streets against the new government. The capital was rocked by protests in the weeks following the final round of elections after it became clear that Castillo was going to be the next leader of the Andean nation.

Castillo’s pro-poor campaign

In the first round of elections, Castillo with his energetic campaigning in the neglected rural areas of the country got the most votes. Keiko Fujimori narrowly edged out another right-wing candidate to come second with 14 per cent of the vote. Castillo’s main campaign slogan—“No more poor people in a rich country”—caught the attention of the electorate and became a national talking point, helping him to narrowly win in the run-off.

Peru is endowed with bountiful natural resources. The commodity boom in the last decade had made Peru’s economy the fastest growing in the region. Only the elite has benefitted so far while the majority wallows in poverty. Castillo campaigned through the length and breadth of the country wearing his peasant’s hat and on many occasions riding a horse and carrying a large pencil to note down the concerns and complaints of voters. He wore his trademark hat during his swearing-in ceremony. “No more making fun of workers, peasant leaders and teachers,” Castillo told his supporters in Lima after his victory. “Today, we must teach the youth, the children, that we are all equal before the law.” Castillo formally became President on July 28, which happened to be the 200th anniversary of Peru’s independence from Spain. He told his supporters in Lima that the next bicentennial, unlike the last one, would be “full of hope, with a future and a vision for a country in which we all enjoy and eat from the bread of the country”.

The neoliberal policies implemented by the corrupt governments that have ruled the country over the past three decades had alienated a large section of the Peruvian public. In the past five years, the country witnessed the unprecedented drama of four serving Presidents being booted out of office on charges of corruption. Alan Garcia, a former President who was facing corruption charges, killed himself to avoid the ignominy of going to jail.

Peru is one of the countries that has suffered the most after the pandemic hit the continent and, in fact, has the highest per capita COVID-related death toll in the world. The Central government failed abysmally in its efforts to halt the spread of the pandemic and in the procurement and distribution of vaccines. Another 10 per cent of its people have been pushed back into poverty because of the pandemic. The country’s economy shrank by 11 per cent last year. Castillo had said that he would ensure that all Peruvians would get free vaccinations if he was elected as President. Until now only 5 per cent of Peru’s 32 million people have been fully vaccinated.

Also read: Leftist surge in Peru

Castillo has promised to introduce radical changes in the ways which the country is governed to address the problems created by growing inequality and poverty. He has also pledged to rewrite the country’s constitution so that the state can play a bigger role in the economy. He had proposed during the election campaign of holding a national referendum to elect a constituent assembly. The 1993 neoliberal constitution, which has woefully let down the country, was drafted during the presidency of Alberto Fujimori.

Castillo wants to nationalise the country’s huge natural resources sector in order to subsidise the health and education sectors. While campaigning, he said that he would force foreign companies to invest 70 per cent of their profits in Peru and that 20 per cent of the gross domestic product would be diverted to the education and health sectors. Castillo has talked about banning the import of luxury goods and other unnecessary items that are draining the country’s scarce resources. He also wants to overhaul the judiciary by making the Supreme Court elected through popular mandate.

Since winning the presidency, Castillo has toned down his radical rhetoric slightly to calm the nerves of the powerful Peruvian political establishment. Cerron demanded that Castillo honour the promises he made on the campaign trail after there were some signs of the new President trying to distance himself from the leadership of the Free Peru Party. Although the Fujimoristas have branded Castillo a “communist”, the new President has never worn his ideology on his sleeve and has so far not claimed to be a communist. But he has been upfront about his evangelical Christian beliefs and has, in fact, opposed abortion and LGBTQ rights, which puts him at odds with the mainstream Left. But then, the late Hugo Chavez of Venezuela was a believer and a socialist at the same time. President Daniel Ortega of Nicaragua, another leftist, has also established close relations with the Catholic Church.

Fulfilling the campaign promises is going to be a tough ask in the short term as the Peruvian parliament is under the control of the right wing, with Keiko Fujimori’s party having the largest numbers. The Free Peru Party has only 37 legislators in the 130-strong national legislature. The leader of the second biggest right-wing party in the legislature called for the “death” of Castillo even before he was formally sworn in. The parliament has the dubious record of fast-tracking the impeachment of sitting Presidents. Some retired army generals, including an admiral who is a member of the national assembly, are calling on the legislators to not recognise the legitimacy of Castillo’s election. General Cesar Astudillo, the head of Peru’s armed forces, has been critical of the new President. The Lima elite is not yet reconciled to the election of a “campesino” for the first time in the nation’s history to the highest office of the land. Michelle Bachelet, the United Nation’s High Commissioner for Human Rights, condemned the “hate speech and discrimination” that is being aired in the media and the streets and has urged all Peruvians to accept Castillo’s victory.

Inaugural address

In his inaugural address to the Peruvian people, President Castillo pledged to “rebuild national unity”. He emphasised that he would govern “democratically, seeking national consensus, guaranteeing that on July 28, 2026, I will return to my work as a teacher”. Castillo’s grass-roots supporters and the leadership of the Free Peru Party want a more radical approach from the new government. They have pledged to fight for a new constitution despite opposition from the parliament. “Compatriots, revolution is never made within official parliaments, the revolution is made in unofficial parliaments, on the streets with grass-roots organisations,” Cerron said in a speech to the party faithful on the day the Castillo was sworn in. His audience comprising supporters from the poorer regions of Peru shouted in unison with clenched fists: “A new constitution or death.”

Also read: Suffocating democracy in the Andes

In his inaugural speech, Castillo also made a commitment “for God, for my family, for my peasant sisters and brothers, teachers, patrolmen, children, youth and women, and for a new constitution”. His Cabinet is filled with prominent progressive figures. Prime Minister Guido Bellido is an avowed Marxist. “Our Cabinet belongs to the people. It answers to the people,” Castillo tweeted as some supporters of Keiko Fujimori protested on the streets of the capital. The Prime Minister and the rest of the Cabinet will have to be confirmed by the opposition-dominated Congress. Like many left-wing leaders in the region such as President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador of Mexico and President Evo Morales of Bolivia, Castillo announced that he would not live in the presidential palace, which, instead, would be turned into a museum open to the public.

This article is closed for comments.
Please Email the Editor