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Pedro Castillo’s First Round Is an Opportunity for the Peruvian Left

The surprise victory of a candidate representing a "Marxist and Leninist" party shows that rural Peru is not to be ignored. But much more organizing is needed if the Peruvian left is to build lasting political power.

Peruvian presidential candidate for the radical leftist party Peru Libre (Free Peru), Pedro Castillo, holds up a giant pencil and a hat during the closing rally of his campaign in Lima. (Gian Masko / AFP via Getty Images)

The first round of the presidential elections in Peru this week produced a staggering upset. Pedro Castillo, primary school teacher and candidate for left-wing party Peru Libre (Free Peru), came in a strong first place amongst a crowded field, with around 19 percent of the vote at current count. The result took Lima and international media by surprise. Their focus on more establishment candidates, or those with urban support, ignored the mass of provincial voters who are deeply unsatisfied with Peru’s political and economic status quo.

Castillo came to national prominence in 2017 during a nationwide teachers’ strike against the government of then-president Pedro Pablo Kuczynski. After being recruited by Peru Libre to run for president this year, he was only a minor candidate. Even as recently as a month ago, he was polling around just 3-5 percent. But his performance in the debates pushed him into the public spotlight, and he gained more support from sympathetic voters as other candidates began to attack him. Despite his rise at the end of the campaign, media outlets were unprepared for his success. On election night, CNN in Peru didn’t have an image of him they could use and had to display a generic silhouette while showing the results.

The party he’s representing, Peru Libre, is fairly obscure, founded and led by former Junín governor Vladimir Cerrón. Cerrón has described the party as “socialist left—Marxist, Leninist, and Mariáteguist,” referencing the Peruvian Marxist writer José Carlos Mariátegui. Their platform supports the nationalization of resources and industry, greatly increasing funding to education, and the creation of a new constitution to overturn the one that was imposed by authoritarian neoliberal president Alberto Fujimori in the 1990s.

Unlike the political sectors represented by Verónika Mendoza, who came third in the 2016 elections and was expected to be the torchbearer of the Left in this election, Peru Libre is socially conservative and supports the Venezuelan governments of Hugo Chávez and Nicolás Maduro. The party has attracted further controversy due to Cerrón receiving a suspended prison sentence over alleged corruption while he was governor.

Castillo’s support comes from the interior and southern provinces, particularly in the Andean highlands, where the population is poorer and more rural. Metropolitan Lima, on the other hand, makes up a third of Peru’s population and is much wealthier than the rest of the country. Lima, like most large Latin American cities, is right-wing and tends to support candidates ranging from the liberal center to the far right.

This is the context in which rural Peruvian voters repudiated the neoliberal consensus that was expected to dominate. Aside from coming first in the presidential race, Peru Libre also topped the congressional polls, winning thirty-seven of the hundred thirty seats in the legislature, according to projections at the time of writing. Many of these new congresspeople will be totally ordinary Peruvians who have no experience in politics and who probably never expected to win.

This isn’t the first time voters from outside Lima have surprised the political establishment. Just last year in the special congressional elections, the party Union for Peru (UPP), which is allied with the indigenous nationalist “ethnocacerist” movement led by imprisoned rebel leader Antauro Humala, dominated the south, defying the polling to win thirteen seats. UPP’s vote collapsed in this election, with most of their supporters appearing to go to Castillo.

The circumstances in which Castillo is now entering a runoff round couldn’t be better. His opponent is Keiko Fujimori, the daughter of Alberto Fujimori, who came a close second in the 2016 presidential election but is now widely disliked. Her involvement in the Odebrecht corruption scandal, which the US Department of Justice called “the largest foreign bribery case in history,” and a couple stints in jail have reduced her first-round vote share from 40 percent to 13 percent. She has received enough support to make it to the second round, but in every polled runoff scenario, she loses to every other candidate.

Keiko Fujimori. (Wikimedia Commons)

Pedro Castillo, however, has not been polled against her or anyone else, as none of the polling agencies expected him to make it to the second round. It could be anyone’s game. Fujimori is the weakest opponent for Castillo, and he’s potentially the weakest opponent for her, given his representation as a far leftist in a fairly conservative country. He will be able to attack her over her connections to her father, and she can attack him over alleged connections to the revolutionary communist group widely denounced for human rights atrocities, Shining Path, a perennial charge against socialists in Peru.

If Castillo does win the runoff, scheduled for June 6, governing effectively will be an uphill battle. The new Congress is extremely divided, with several right-wing parties controlling a supermajority of seats. In just the past term, Congress has either impeached or pressured into resignation three presidents. It’s not hard to imagine that they do so again to Pedro Castillo if he interferes with their agenda.

And while Castillo and Peru Libre received the most votes, they don’t have a real political movement behind them. Their victory was not the result of years of organization, as with other left-wing movements in Latin America — most voters who chose Castillo did so in the last couple weeks. Unlike Bolivians who support the Movement for Socialism or Brazilians who support the Workers’ Party, most Peru Libre voters are not wedded to the party in any way, and its support could dissipate in the next election.

It’s also unclear how disciplined their political structure and new representatives will be. Peru still lacks a strong nationwide left that can provide a unified response to crises. Without that, an anti-neoliberal president is vulnerable, as was the case with Paraguayan president Fernando Lugo, who was impeached by a congress that he had very few allies in.

Castillo supporters are pitching him as the “Peruvian Evo Morales.” While the similarities are there — a rural labor organizer from a modest background — the reality is that Castillo has only come into the spotlight recently, whereas Evo spent years as a prominent figure challenging successive right-wing governments, including with a failed presidential run in 2002. Peru Libre is a minor party that has suddenly had unexpected success.

Castillo’s own connections to the party are new and likely limited. He has run for office before, but his main organizing background comes from a 2017 teachers’ strike and as the leader of grassroots bases formed out of the union SUTEP. The party politics of that strike alone were fraught and divided, never mind the union movement across the country. In comparison, the Movement for Socialism (MAS) in Bolivia organized unions and peasant confederations for years to create a powerful unified political instrument. This organization has given MAS durability, allowing them to respond in the face of the 2019 coup and win back power.

Right now, the Peruvian left is still disunited. Verónika Mendoza, despite having lost much of her support from 2016, still took 8 percent of the vote with her Together for Peru (JPP) alliance. There are significant rifts between the two camps. Mendoza and most of JPP are socially progressive, and their support for causes like legalizing same-sex marriage clashes with Castillo’s denouncement of “gender ideology,” a term used by Latin American social conservatives like Jair Bolsonaro to signal their opposition to LGBT rights. Many Mendoza supporters have also accused Castillo of being a demagogue and inauthentically leftist, pointing to his opposition to a wealth tax.

Verónika Mendoza. (Flickr)

Peru Libre and JPP attempted to form an alliance ahead of the 2020 elections, but that alliance was rejected by JPP supporters who took issue with Cerrón’s corruption issues, and the deal fell apart. Building left-wing power that goes beyond individual attempts at winning votes from one election to the next will have to start with a reconciliation between these two camps. Mendoza, for her part, says she wants to discuss working with Castillo and hopes to ensure he doesn’t bow to business interests like former president Ollanta Humala did.

Building institutional socialist power up from nothing is easier said than done. But if it can be done, there are many issues for the Left to tackle: the inequality between Lima and the provinces, the abuses by multinational corporations that pollute the land and steal Peru’s wealth, and the endless cycle of corrupt politicians that break people’s trust in the power of political mobilization. This work will begin with the push to draft a new constitution.

The odds were stacked against Evo Morales but he managed to change Bolivia for the better. In Peru the same is also possible. The first task for now, though, is defeating Keiko Fujimori in the runoff and preventing the return of right-wing authoritarian rule.