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Peru and the ‘Totalitarian Temptation’

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With 33 million inhabitants in a huge territory of 1,250,000 km2, Peru has everything to be a prosperous and stable nation. It has valleys, plateaus, and high Andean mountains, the coast to the west and the Amazon to the east. It is one of the most resourceful countries in the world. But, like Argentina, the incompetence of its governments – with few exceptions – led it to the current critical situation.

The Constitution establishes that it is a democratic, independent, and sovereign republic, with a central government divided into the three classic powers: executive, legislative and judicial. The influential Peruvian journalist and writer Jaime Bayly, based in Miami, always ironically refers to his country’s judges and politicians as chameleons and opportunists. The example of recently impeached and imprisoned presidents seems to prove him right.

Very critical of Keiko Fujimori, he warns, however, that a victory of the communist Castillo would imply “closing the Congress, imposing a Constitution that enables indefinite reelection and, in short, a model similar to that of Venezuela.”

Peru: unstable and chaotic politics

In 1990, Alberto Fujimori won the presidency after a second-round – unfortunately for democracy – against Mario Vargas Llosa. From the beginning of his mandate, he faced strong parliamentary opposition. In April 1992, he closed the Congress, limited freedom of the press, and established a dictatorship. The army was making progress in its fight against the Maoist terrorist group “Sendero Luminoso” (Shining Path).

Under international pressure, particularly from Washington, a new constitution was approved in 1993. Fujimori continued in power and was reelected in 1995. The economic recession continued and human rights violations were permanent.

In 2000, after elections of dubious transparency, he won a third term. The opposition, made up of various political parties, opposed his inauguration without success. At the same time, Vladimiro Montesinos was appointed head of intelligence. In September, recordings and videos were released showing opposition congressmen, businessmen, and trade unionists receiving bribes from Montesinos himself. A political crisis broke out and Fujimori left Peru to live in Japan, the country of which he was a citizen, and from there he resigned from the presidency via fax. Congress did not accept his resignation and dismissed him for “moral incapacity.”

After that, the president of Congress, Valentin Paniagua, was sworn in as president. The transitional government organized new elections, promoted the moralization of the state and the armed forces. Also, the gas exploitation contract was signed and a “Truth Commission” was created to investigate the excesses in the fight against terrorism.

In the 2001 elections, Alejandro Toledo was sworn in as the new president. Although the economy overcame the recession and had an important growth, the government lost popularity due to several millionaire corruption cases. During this period, the negotiation of the Free Trade Agreement with the USA began.

In 2006, Alan Garcia, from the historic APRA, was elected. His administration continued with economic progress but was affected by social conflicts and scandals involving government officials and Garcia himself, who years later committed suicide when he was about to be arrested. Likewise, the trial against Alberto Fujimori – who had returned – took place and he was sentenced to 25 years.

In 2011, Ollanta Humala defeated Keiko Fujimori – daughter of the former dictator – with a 2 % advantage. The executive maintained tense relations with the opposition, social conflicts with miners increased and the economy slowed down. In the 2016 elections, Keiko was again defeated, this time by Pablo Kuczynski. However, fujimorismo obtained an absolute majority in Congress, making relations with the Executive difficult.

After several scandals, Kuczynski resigned in 2018 and Vice President Martín Vizcarra took office. Although he inherited parliamentary weakness, he tried to improve relations with the opposition. However, after several clashes, Vizcarra dissolved Congress and called for legislative elections, with new parliamentarians taking office in 2020.

Faced with the coronavirus pandemic and bribery allegations, it was now Vizcarra who was dismissed by the new Congress. Instability continued, Manuel Merino took over, who resigned just days later due to the repression that caused the death of two protesters. Finally, Francisco Sagasti was appointed until the elections of April 2021… it was no longer worthwhile to keep changing presidents for the imminent elections.

Keiko, the lesser evil

The second round of the Peruvian elections was won by the teacher Pedro Castillo (19 %) and Keiko Fujimori (14 %). The success of the former represented a protest against the traditional political class, although the vote was fragmented among 18 candidates.

Castillo represents the “Peru Libre” party. His program is totalitarian: change the Constitution, eliminate the Constitutional Court, control the media and massive nationalizations. He projects the foundation of a communist state, not a social-democratic one.

Although he defends the values of the left in public spending and foreign policy, he is very conservative on social issues: he is radically opposed to abortion, euthanasia, “egalitarian marriage” and defends the death penalty. He admires – of course – Fidel Castro, Hugo Chávez and Nicolás Maduro. If Castillo were to become President, it is difficult for his proposals to be approved, since the newly elected Parliament is made up of different parties and he only has 30 legislators out of 130… but he has already proposed to replace the Congress with a Constituent Assembly of his own choosing, which would draft a new Constitution.

On the other hand, Vargas Llosa himself affirmed that Keiko Fujimori committed herself to democracy and gave her his support.

Vargas Llosa
Former presidential candidate and Nobel Prize for Literature, Mario Vargas Llosa, called to vote for Keiko Fujimori in the Peruvian elections.

Unlike in the past, Keiko highlighted her closeness with her father’s administration, affirming that “after long conversations, we have become very close,” and declared that “his presidency was not a dictatorship, despite authoritarian moments.” She promised to pardon him if elected.

In the struggle of “labels” – some logical and others delirious – she has been described as “conservative, populist and authoritarian.” According to her, democracy “cannot be weak and must be based on a solid principle of authority.” If, on the one hand, the fujimoristas have the support of a third of the population, there is a strong anti-fujimorismo, which rejects her father’s legacy and sees his daughter as a risk for democracy.

Many Peruvians do not want to vote for Keiko, but they are facing a tough test. Analysts agree that Fujimori could not have had a more suitable rival for her than the extremist “Peru Libre.”

On the other side, Castillo seeks to soften his image, and even “hide” leaders of his party, especially Vladimir Cerron, main ideologue and orthodox communist with strong links to the Venezuelan dictatorship. Both postulants need to reduce the opposition they generate.

“I would say that Pedro Castillo’s strategy is aimed at empowering himself as an individual. His strategy is to distance himself from the people around him and that people talk more about him than about other members of his campaign, such as Cerrón. I believe that he has sought moderation in his speech, but, in addition to that, an affirmation of his personality. Castillo assumes the protagonism of his candidacy, and marking that difference is important”, comments analyst Mauricio Saravia.

According to political scientist Paula Távara, “the strategy is one of ‘semi-moderation.’ There was not a real moderation but an apparent one, with timid guarantees. It could favor him, but it is not enough (…) he has had to lower the tone of his speech and minimize the blunders of his supporters (…) he has realized this and assumed a different position from the previous one. Subtracting authority from his surroundings gives him an image of control and leadership”.

As for Keiko Fujimori and her party “Fuerza Popular”, Távara argues that “the north of the country was a Fujimori bastion in the last election and her party always got many votes there. So, if she wants to turn the election around, she has to assume regional efforts. Besides conquering Lima, where she has it easy, she must reverse the north. She must improve his image. The great obstacle is that she has little credibility, it is difficult for her to show herself to the people as a better option for democracy and the economy.”

Analysts such as Mauricio Saravia and Paula Távara warn that both campaigns suffer from a common gap: the clear approach to the pandemic. “They are focusing on a country that does not have a pandemic. Neither focuses on it forcefully, Peru being one of the countries that has borne the brunt of this global health crisis. This disconnection with something so basic and palpable daily is incomprehensible.”

Writer Mario Vargas Llosa announced his support for Keiko Fujimori because “today she embodies democratic values,” and warned that an eventual government of Pedro Castillo “would be a catastrophe.” It is essential “that Peru does not fall into the tragedy of Venezuela, Nicaragua, and Cuba, countries that have reached a truly critical situation.”

In short, Castillo maintains a nine-point lead with one month to go before the vote. In a country as politically changeable as Peru, this is not an irretrievable difference, although it is not easy to achieve.

Keiko must attract the undecided, who exceed 25% of the Peruvian electorate. To do so, her image must improve, especially outside Lima, which she has already won. Showing humility to recognize past mistakes, conciliatory and respectful of the democratic system are the key factors. The political reality undoubtedly indicates that her opponent will try to impose an authoritarian regime following her failed idols. Because of this evident risk, Keiko is undoubtedly the lesser evil for Peru.

Eduardo Zalovich

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