Neoliberal or Marxist? Polarized Peru faces volatile future either way 

FILE PHOTO: Funeral workers carry a coffin holding the body of a person who died of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19), at a cemetery in Lima, Peru, May 9, 2020. REUTERS/Sebastian Castaneda


By Marco Aquino

June 3, 2021

LIMA (Reuters) - Peru has had a turbulent year. The Andean nation has churned through three presidents since late 2020, has the world's highest per capita COVID-19 death toll, and experienced its worst economic crash in three decades.

Now voters in the copper-rich nation have a chance to set a new course in elections on Sunday - a polarized run-off between surprise socialist candidate Pedro Castillo and Keiko Fujimori, the free-market scion of a powerful political dynasty.

Whoever wins, the South American country is set for a volatile and uncertain road ahead, analysts say.

Voters are almost evenly split between the two candidates, who offer sharply contrasting visions for the world's no. 2 copper producer and its 33 million people.

Castillo, whose socialist Free Peru party has been buoyed by support in poorer rural regions, has a slim lead in the polls, ahead of conservative neo-liberal Fujimori, who is popular in capital Lima. Pollsters say the vote is too close to call.

The congressional vote in April saw around a dozen parties win seats, meaning there will be a fragmented legislature with no one party holding a majority.

Giovanna Peñaflor, a political analyst, said the stark divisions meant the new government would be vulnerable to more volatility, whoever won.

"Instability will be the norm in the years ahead, because we have weak institutions and because the government will lack legitimacy because things are so polarized," she said.

"In theory, this election was supposed to end (instability), to bring a government with some legitimacy to make reforms, but this won't happen and the political struggle won't stop."

Over the course of one week in November last year, one president was impeached by Congress and another forced out of office after fiery protests from young people angry at what they saw as an illegitimate coup led to at last two deaths. Since then, Peru has been ruled by interim President Francisco Sagasti. The uncertainty has rattled Peru's once-steady markets.

In marches this week ahead of the vote, protest placards claimed Castillo would turn Peru into a "communist or chavista" state, a reference to Venezuela's former leftist President Hugo Chavez. Castillo rejects the comparison.

Others lambasted Fujimori over corruption charges she denies and criticized her as "authoritarian," linking her to her father Alberto Fujimori's divisive presidency in the 1990s. He is currently in jail for human rights abuses and corruption.

"It's because of the Fujimoris that we have a constitution with a neo-liberal economic model that benefits multinational firms to the detriment of the people," said one university student who asked not to be named at an 'anti-Keiko' march on Tuesday.

'FIGHT FOR DEMOCRACY'

Fujimori supporters, who include the country's storied writer Mario Vargas Llosa, say Castillo would risk destabilizing Peru, which has been a relative safe haven for investors and miners in the region despite the recent political turmoil.

"We have to fight for democracy, we do not want to be a Venezuela, we do not want to be Cuba," said Roberto Rios, a pro-Fujimori protester who participated in one of the marches through downtown Lima on the weekend.

"We want to maintain our freedoms, that's all."

Castillo, a primary school teacher little-known until his surprise win in April's first-round vote, plans to rewrite Peru's constitution, taking vastly more profits from miners and increasing spending on education and health.

He has said that mining firms are "plundering" Peru's mineral wealth and threatened to nationalize strategic sectors if needed, though has moderated his stance as the campaign has proceeded and he has sought to win middle-ground voters.

Fujimori, who came within a percentage point of winning the 2016 election, has shot up in opinion polls over the last month, playing up her security credentials following a May attack by Shining Path militants that left 16 dead.

The Fujimori family is loved and loathed in almost equal measure in Peru. Some herald Alberto Fujimori for his fight against the rebel group in the 1990s and say he laid the foundations for economic growth after years of crisis and hyperinflation.

Others condemn his authoritarian streak, a legacy that weighs heavily upon the younger Fujimori's shoulders.

Analysts also said a close vote could spark off more protests, if the losing side did not accept the result.

"Crises have made the country quite unstable already," said Peñaflor. "There will be people who are interested in pulling the rug out from under whoever is in power."

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