Peruvian Election, Still Undecided, Pushes a Democracy to Its Brink

The two presidential candidates are locked in a near tie. One claims fraud and is seeking to have tens of thousands of votes nullified. The other has called his supporters into the streets.,

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LIMA, Peru — Peru has been through a year of profound turmoil: it cycled through three presidents, suffered one of the world’s highest coronavirus death rates and watched its economy shrink more than any in the region under the weight of the pandemic.

Many in the country hoped against the odds that the presidential election last Sunday would offer a new start. Instead, nearly a week after the votes were cast, Peru is again gripped by uncertainty.

The two candidates are locked in a near tie. One candidate is alleging fraud and calling for as many as 200,000 votes to be nullified — a move that would disenfranchise many poor and Indigenous voters. The other has called his supporters into the streets to defend those votes.

The tension is pushing democracy to the limit, analysts said, exacerbating the fissures running through a deeply divided society and raising concern about the country’s future.

The country is enduring “this nuclear war in which Peruvian politics has been plunged,” said the political scientist Mauricio Zavaleta, one in which politicians believe that “the ends justify the means.”

With 99 percent of votes counted, Pedro Castillo, a leftist former teacher with no past governing experience, leads Keiko Fujimori, the daughter of former right-wing President Alberto Fujimori, and a symbol of the country’s establishment, by about 70,000 votes. Mr. Castillo has won about 50.2 percent of the votes counted, Ms. Fujimori 49.8 percent.

But Ms. Fujimori has asked officials to toss out thousands of votes, claiming without concrete evidence that her opponent’s party has violated the voting system “in a systematic way.

Electoral authorities and observers say there has been no evidence presented yet of systematic fraud, and analysts say Ms. Fujimori’s effort will likely fail to turn the results in her favor.

Electoral authorities have until Saturday to review requests from Ms. Fujimori’s party to nullify the vote tallies at 802 polling stations, where she is accusing Castillo supporters of various types of illegal activity, including changing vote counts in his favor.

The polling stations are in regions Mr. Castillo won with strong margins — mainly poor and historically marginalized rural Andean areas, including Mr. Castillo’s hometown.

By Thursday, a crowd of Castillo supporters had gathered outside the office of the national electoral authority. Some had traveled from far away, and said they were frustrated and worried that Ms. Fujimori was trying to steal the election.

“Defend the vote!” some chanted.

“These are the most disastrous elections that I have ever seen,” said Antonio Galvez, 37, a taxi driver working by the protest. “Ms. Keiko Fujimori represents everything that is bad about Peruvian politics.”

ImagePolice officers guarding the national electoral authority on Thursday.
Police officers guarding the national electoral authority on Thursday.Credit…Angela Ponce/Reuters

On Thursday, the crisis intensified when a prosecutor asked a judge to jail Ms. Fujimori, who is facing corruption charges related to a previous run for president.

Accused of running a criminal organization that trafficked in illegal campaign donations, Ms. Fujimori could be sentenced to 30 years in prison. Detained and released three times as the case proceeds, she is now accused by the prosecution of having contact with case witnesses, a violation of her release.

If she wins the election, she will be shielded from prosecution during her five-year term.

The election, and the tensions it has fueled, are exacerbating the divides in Peruvian society.

Despite consistent economic growth rates over the past two decades, Peru remains a deeply unequal and divided nation, with the wealthier and whiter population in its cities reaping most of the benefits of a neoliberal economic model put in place in the 1990s by Ms. Fujimori’s father.

When the pandemic ripped through Peru, it exacerbated those social and economic gaps, hitting hardest those who could not afford to stop working, who lived in cramped conditions, or who had limited access to health care in a country with a weak safety net.

The elections played along the same economic, racial and class lines, with Ms. Fujimori drawing most of her support from urban areas, and Mr. Castillo finding his base in the rural highlands, home to more mixed-race and Indigenous Peruvians.

Mr. Zavaleta, the political scientist, said he thought the chaos of the election, including Ms. Fujimori’s attempts to overturn votes, had “deepened the differences between Peruvians.”

“And I believe that it will have relatively long-lasting effects,” he went on.

Outside the election authority on Thursday, Max Aguilar, 63, said he had traveled hours by bus, from the northern city of Chimbote, to defend Mr. Castillo.

“We believe that the far right has already had enough time to show us that things can be better — and they haven’t done it,” he said.

“So we, the people, are saying no, that is enough. And we are betting on a change. We have a lot of confidence in Professor Castillo.”

Sofia Villamil contributed reporting from Bogota, Colombia.

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