Peru Socialist Set to Face Fujimori in Battle of Extremes

Peru’s next president will be either a little-known rural schoolteacher who vows to nationalize industries and rein in the media, or the polarizing right-wing daughter of a jailed strongman, herself out on bail for alleged corruption.

With 92% of ballots counted after 18 candidates ran on Sunday, the runoff will almost certainly be between Pedro Castillo of the Free Peru party, who took 19.1% of the vote, and Keiko Fujimori, who got 13.4%.

Fujimori, with the Popular Force party, warns that her rival’s plans to rewrite the constitution and take over strategic companies make him a danger to democracy.

Peru Socialist Set to Face Fujimori in Battle of Extremes

Conjuring up images from the 1990s when her father was in office and Maoist guerrillas of the Shining Path terrorized the country, she called Castillo “a car bomb to the nation’s stability,” who would “explode the last 30 years of development into a thousand pieces.”

Castillo, 51, says that it’s political operators like her, the daughter of Alberto Fujimori and who is facing multiple corruption allegations, that made his long-shot candidacy possible.

“For so long, they’ve told us that only politicians, constitutional scholars, the politically erudite -- those with big resumes -- can run a country. They’ve had enough time, decades, and look how they’ve left the country,” he said. “Peruvians have taken their blindfolds off.”

Peru Socialist Set to Face Fujimori in Battle of Extremes

Peru, the world’s second biggest copper producer, has had an exceptionally painful year. Its 33 million inhabitants have one of the worst Covid death tolls and have gone through three presidents in six months. Congress is splintered and in constant battle with the president. Sunday’s results suggest that struggle will continue.

It was always going to be a messy, unpredictable race but Castillo upended all expectations. A union leader during a teachers strike in 2017, he was a virtual unknown just a few weeks ago. His promises to pump 20% of the national budget into education and health, and force mining companies and other multinationals to keep their money in Peru helped him sweep the votes in rural areas.

Castillo represents a sector of the population that has missed out on the nation’s economic growth over the last three decades, and which has to endure poor health care and schools, said Rodolfo Rojas, a partner of the Lima-based Sequoia political advisory group.

Given how much poverty there is in rural Peru, “it’s not a surprise that this vote exists. It’s a surprise that it isn’t bigger,” Rojas said in a phone interview.

Castillo also picked up support from those fed up with the political and business elites. There may be no country in the world with more impeachments, and there has developed over the past 40 years nearly a revolving door between the presidential complex and prison.

On the campaign trail, Castillo became known for his white straw hat and oversized pencil -- a reference to his education promises. He rode on horseback to cast his vote.

As news of his victory spread, followers chanted, “No more poor people in a rich country!”

Castillo’s party embraces socialism and talks about building closer ties with socialist governments in Venezuela, Nicaragua and Cuba. His enemies, including former interior minister Ricardo Valdez, accuse him of having connections to the types of subversive organizations’ that Fujimori’s father worked to stamp out.

Fujimori

Keiko Fujimori, 45, is one of the country’s best-known figures -- growing up in the public eye as the de facto First Lady to her powerful and controversial father. Alberto Fujimori was beloved for ending hyperinflation and breaking the back of leftist guerrillas that threatened to turn Peru into a failed state.

But he also had an authoritarian streak, dissolving congress and clinging to power. He’s serving a 25-year sentence for the death-squad killings of suspected terrorist sympathizers.

PERU INSIGHT: Runoff Election Holds Risk of Radical Downturn

As a congresswoman, Keiko Fujimori has tried to rescue her father’s legacy even as she’s faced her own legal challenges. She was released on bail in May, and is still awaiting trial on allegations that she accepted more than $1 million in illegal campaign contributions during her failed 2011 presidential bid. She has denied the accusations.

Fujimori said that it was during those dark days in jail that she promised herself she would run for president a third time if she got out. Now she’s poised to face Castillo during a run-off in June. The new president will take office July 28.

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