Elections Series: Peru — Presidential
Author: Max Méndez-Beck and Nathalie Gonzalez Aguilar
On Sunday, June 6th, Peru went to the polls to select their next president, choosing between far-left upstart candidate Pedro Castillo and long-running representative of right-wing Fujimorismo, Keiko Fujimori. We brought together a panel of Peruvian political scientists to discuss some of the trends that have stood out from the electoral process, including mass popular dissatisfaction due to a decade of political crisis and a lack of mechanisms for ensuring democratic accountability for candidates.
The discussion, which took place on May 25th, was moderated by Martín Valdivia (GRADE) and features EGAP members Gianmarco León-Cilliotta (Universitat Pompeu Fabra, Barcelona GSE and IPEG) and Paula Muñoz (Universidad del Pacífico). The transcript of the chat (edited for clarity) can be found below along with the video recording for each segment. You can watch the full discussion here.
Political Participation in the Context of Institutional Crisis
Martín Valdivia: We’ll start with an initial interpretation of the key facts that need to be raised to understand what happened in the (April 11th) first round of voting and what lies ahead:
First, the two candidates with the most votes, Pedro Castillo and Keiko Fujimori, together only captured about 30% of the total valid votes, a much smaller proportion for first round winning candidates than in any other previous election in Peru. Meanwhile, null (or blank) votes carried more weight than either of the two candidates in that process.
Second, the two candidates are, arguably, extreme opposites in terms of economic measures (though, this is up for debate given the vague promises of each campaign). At the same time, they are somewhat similar with respect to their stances on social issues. The key point, however, is that both were viewed quite negatively by large swaths of the population according to polling in the lead up to the first round. Both candidates also raise questions about their adherence to democratic institutions.
Finally, one aspect that is striking is the difference between voting patterns in Lima and the rest of the country. Castillo won in rural areas by a lot, while the urban areas of the Coast (specifically Lima) were basically the only places where people were more inclined to vote for Fujimori.
Paula Muñoz: I believe that three factors can account for the electoral result in the first round, which seemed so strange, especially for an international audience but also for Peruvians. First is the acute political-institutional crisis that we Peruvians have been living through between 2016 and 2020. This crisis was characterized by an acute confrontation between the executive and legislative powers, which unfolded amidst a string of corruption allegations linked to the Lava Jato investigation. This institutional crisis produced high political instability during these years, but particularly at the end of 2020, resulting in 4 presidents in less than 5 years. This produced policy paralysis at a critical point in time, which had especially serious consequences as the pandemic broke. The institutional crisis, in general, had two clear political effects for the election: first, it caused the highest level of citizen dissatisfaction with the political system since the 2000 democratic transition; and second, as a formal counterpart to citizen discontent, the political crisis weakened the electoral prospects of establishment actors/candidates, widening even more the representation gap that we already had.
Moving beyond the institutional crisis, a second factor that explains the first round results is the presence of extreme political fragmentation. This also parallels trends in our political system but it has accelerated in recent years. In 2021, we had 19 candidates for the presidency and 20 lists for Congress; what is interesting is that Peruvian democracy in the 2000s is characterized by having very, very weak political parties and a very fluid political system. So in the absence of organized parties and with so many candidates, neither conservatives nor leftists nor centrists (broadly defined) were able to coordinate which candidates they were going to put forth, and that paved the way for this outcome. This inability to coordinate was particularly noticeable on the right side of the spectrum, which divided itself into six candidates that together added up 45% of the valid votes.
Finally, a crucial factor in the first round was the Covid-19 pandemic and its political effects. In this sense, I have to stress that Peru has experienced some of the world’s highest Covid-19 mortality rates, while also being devastated in economic terms. Poverty has increased by almost 10 points, and unemployment has surged. More to the point, the impact of the pandemic has been felt very unevenly among citizens. People working in informal sectors are suffering and literally dying at much higher rates than others. This very serious crisis opened the path to re-politicize existing structural divisions, especially the class and territorial divides that were latent in the 2006 and 2011 elections.
Gianmarco León-Ciliotta: The first thing that comes to mind that we have to put our finger on is what is actually new and surprising about this election and what is not. Elections in Latin America are always messy. For example, one aspect that has been played up by the media is the presence of (previously unknown candidate) Pedro Castillo in the second round. However, the success of so-called “anti-system” or “outsider” candidates is not something that is new in Peruvian elections. We had Fujimori in 1990, Toledo coming up in 1995 and winning the presidency in 2001, and then Humala in 2011.
What I think is new and what we are struggling to understand in this election is, on the one hand, the large disaffection that we see in the electorate, which Paula has already discussed and which is related to the political crisis and corruption scandals of the last five years. Where I would like to put a little more emphasis though is on the class and geographic divide of the vote. I think these divides have basically two things that we have to try to understand a little better.
First, Peru has been growing quite well over the past two to three decades, although in the last few years the economy was already slowing down. The growth has coincided with large increases in inequality, and then you had, as Paula mentioned, the pandemic hitting Peru quite hard. The lockdown imposed by the government in mid-March was extremely long and very rigid. What is interesting is the way people read the situation was, I believe, quite different depending on if you were poor or rich. The way the pandemic hit Peru led a lot of people to notice that the state is incapable of providing quality public services which led to widespread demand for redistribution, especially among the poor. On the other hand, the rich and the elites who are used to getting stuff done by going around the government — circumventing the government’s poor provision of public services — themselves were faced with a situation where they were unable to buy the stuff that could put them in a better position. This led to a very strong class divide.
The geographic component of the vote that Martin and Paula mentioned is also super interesting. What I think we have to also consider is the failed decentralization process that has been pushed through, where you had large transfers from the central government to regional and local governments, but at the same time you saw very large amounts of money that were not being spent and local politicians being implicated in various corruption scandals. I think this can be linked to the fact that the economic decentralization process that was designed was not paired with proper political decentralization and transfer of competencies. Basically you do not have local elites that are sufficiently qualified to spend all the money that has been transferred, which I think explains, to a large extent, the geographic split of the vote.
Martín Valdivia: I also tend to agree with the idea that the presence of the “anti-system” vote has been a key feature of previous elections in Peru. One thing I’d add is the way the system has managed that process. We can argue that, in a way, these groups or these previous candidates (Humala or even Toledo) were, in a sense, captured by the economic and political elites. They came into office with an anti-system message that made them popular, only to avoid pursuing any measures that would affect the general economic system. The question is whether the system can maintain this survival mechanism. It seems unlikely now, of course, with Castillo seeming to be a different kind of candidate, but there are also other circumstances at play here. One is that the pandemic, as Gianmarco and Paula have noted, has exacerbated all the differences and inefficiencies of the state to serve or attend to the poor, which may make this type of capture difficult. But the other issue is the loss of prestige by the economic and political elites due to all these corruption scandals — not just those connected to the Lava Jato investigation but also the vast number of corruption scandals at the local level which have generated such a lack of credibility in the system as a whole.
Paula Muñoz: The only thing that I was thinking is that the electoral geography is not really new either; it’s the same pattern we saw in the 1990s, in 2006, in 2011. For me, it illustrates more the reemergence of the existing divide that is mixed in terms of class and territory. I don’t know if we can say that it is due to the failed decentralization process, although it is true that that process didn’t work well.
Gianmarco León-Ciliotta: Yeah, I completely agree. What’s special about this election is that all of the patterns we have seen in the past have gone to the extremes and everything has been pushed even further by the pandemic.
Democratic Accountability Mechanisms under Weak Party Systems
Martín Valdivia: The two candidates in the second round come with significant baggage in terms of democratic credentials. Fujimori is of course the daughter of Alberto Fujimori, and we all remember what happened in the 90s, when the state took the reins of several democratic institutions as well as the press. And we also know the way people from Fujimori’s party have behaved in previous electoral processes when they had the majority in Congress. This raises questions about their ability to strengthen democratic institutions in Peru. Castillo, for his part, is maybe more connected to the idea that they need a long process in order to carry out the reforms they plan to do, but in his pursuit of these goals he has questioned some key democratic institutions that have been developed over the past decades. What threats do you see in this realm and what would people need to know when deciding for whom to vote for in the second round.
Gianmarco León-Ciliotta: One thing that is clear is that the party structure is completely non-existent and the fact that there is no party structure means that, de facto, the first round of the election is a kind of an open primary, where the whole country votes to weed out candidates. What you’d expect is that, after a primary, candidates would move a little to the center. That has not been the case at all, first because Fujimori had all six parties on the right align with her immediately, so there was no need to move to the center, and Castillo started out with a 20 point lead — though now we’re seeing that they are re-alining. What voters who are trying to decide who to support in the second round needed was some sort of commitment device that candidates could adopt. In a normal situation, this commitment device usually comes from the political parties. In those situations, there is an accountability structure that ensures that candidates can commit to a certain platform which eases doubts that voters face when deciding. I think what we need to point to in this election is what is the accountability structure that we need to build in order to allow candidates to commit to certain policies, absent strong political parties.
Paula Muñoz: These are very important questions and we don’t know how to answer them yet. There is a lot going on. The basic problem is what Gianmarco has pointed out. Building and maintaining credibility is very challenging in a context with very weak political parties and institutions. We don’t have strong institutions that help us sustain commitments over time. Indeed, what concerns Peruvians right now is that, precisely because of the political crisis of the last years, there has been a practical and de-facto increase of the power of Congress in relation to that of the Executive. Though they have technically not changed, in practice there has been an abusive use of horizontal control mechanisms that were not used that much in the past. This is the way both the Congress and the Executive have been going at each other. We don’t expect that dynamic to go away easily. Particularly because the Congress that has just been elected (during the first round) is a very fragmented one and is also going to be composed mainly by newcomers and political amateurs, precisely because it comes on the heels of a new “no re-election” rule. The prospects of this institutional conflict continuing are very high, which is a very dangerous situation for democratic stability.
In the past we have also had candidates who have not complied with their promises, and Keiko Fujimori is a good example of this. Peru is one case where policy switching is constant, at least in the 2000s and even in the 1990s. In the absence or weakness of political institutions, civil society should play an important role in placing institutional safeguards and exercising citizen control. They are trying to do so but it is not an easy task particularly because Peru’s civil society is not as strong or articulated as it is in other countries.
Martín Valdivia: So let me add that I agree with both of you in that the weak institutions in Peru make it very difficult to come up with some relevant commitment devices. I wonder what this means for the signaling process going into the second round. We don’t know what is going to happen when they get into power but we know what they are trying to signal to the electorate for this second round. It’s challenging, in part because during the first round we missed what was happening in terms of the messaging to people who get information from outside traditional media — people in highland and southern highland provinces of Peru as well as the rural areas (Castillo’s base). What we see right now, with Fujimori presenting her economic team, is an attempt to signal continuation, which is something the urban middle class is concerned about. But it’s going to be more difficult for the two candidates to convey messages about respect to democracy, democratic processes, and institutions. The second challenge is to convey a truthful message about the fight against corruption. Those are two areas where I don’t know exactly how they are going to signal to people that they can make changes.
The last point I wanted to make is that the key signal of change in these groups, at this moment, seems to be a change to the constitution (which is being proposed by Castillo). If you are pushing for that you are indicating to people that you understand that they want change, and at this moment Castillo is winning that battle. The issue is that the discussion hasn’t moved much from there, there is a lot of uncertainty and few details of what each one wants to see change.
Gianmarco León-Ciliotta: Just to pick up on the previous points, I think here we are in a context where institutions are unable to provide a standard accountability mechanism, and typically the way we think about situations where we don’t have strong institutions, is that at least the electoral incentives should play a big role in disciplining politicians, making them more representative. Again, here we are in a context that due to the absence of political parties you don’t have the internal control mechanism. When you get to be president you know that one constant of the past 15-20 years is that when you leave the presidency, your political party has no representation in Congress. And if you put on top of that the fact that in the last legislature re-election was eliminated by Congress, then you completely wipe out the electoral incentive. So if the constitutional reform is going to move through, under these rules we are likely going to have a constitution that is going to be a composition of bits and pieces of particular interest groups that are pretty much not going to represent anyone. So what needs to be pushed right now is a political reform that puts back in place at least the electoral incentive and strengthens political parties.
Paula Muñoz: To add to that, we come precisely from a mix of failed attempts at political reform, blocked or distorted by Congress, so it’s more like a vicious cycle. It is a difficult route. The main question right now in the political discussion is that the mechanisms for, not changing the constitution but writing a new constitution, are not really clear and are not being debated. The ways that it could take shape are contested even by constitutionalists, so that is a political fight on its own that’s going to come to the fore if Castillo wins. So that is something we should take into account.
In relation to that credibility issues, it’s very interesting what Martin has mentioned, because maybe Keiko could bring some peace of mind for people that are concerned about Castillo’s economic proposals but in the same team of experts and possible ministers she’s also including former ministers that have been in jail, Baca Campodonico or even Tudela that were part of the first government of Alberto Fujimori and who ended with accusations of corruption and formed part of the authoritarian government. So there is no willingness to even signal a change in that area. What’s happening in the election right now is that none of the candidates are really dealing with the democratic issue. Recent surveys show that Keiko, in particular, is perceived as being a symbol of corruption, which is why so many people still refuse to vote for her. Many anti-Fujimoris have that issue at the stake of not being credible on democratic institutional grounds and not having the correct credentials to speak for corruption and anti-corruption.