The new president faces a coronavirus-ravaged economy and deeply entrenched political opposition, but his ambitious social programmes are a cause for celebration, writes KEN LIVINGSTONE
PEDRO CASTILLO, a rural schoolteacher representing the left-wing party Peru Libre (Free Peru), scored a stunning victory in this year’s presidential election, but the struggle against powerful right-wing forces is now entering a new stage.
Castillo’s success was unexpected. Back in March he was at 5 per cent in the opinion polls but performed well in the candidates’ debates and secured 19 per cent in the first round of the election in April, topping 17 other candidates.
In the second round in June, he narrowly beat, by 50.13 per cent to 49.87 per cent, Keiko Fujimori of the right-wing Popular Force party. Fujimori is the daughter of former President Alberto Fujimori, jailed in 2009 for 25 years for his role in death squad killings and kidnappings in the 1990s.
During the eight-week campaign before the final vote, Castillo faced a torrent of media criticism and repeated accusations that he wanted to turn Peru into a totalitarian state, with mass expropriations. But the impact of deep structural inequalities, exacerbated by a neoliberal economic agenda and the collapse of the health sector under a deadly pandemic, proved more decisive for the majority of voters.
This was the third defeat in a presidential contest for Fujimori, having also lost the 2011 and 2016 elections. She is facing trial over allegations that she took $1.2m in bribes from Brazilian construction company Odebrecht to fund these two presidential campaigns.
With stakes high and unwilling to concede defeat, she claimed electoral fraud, calling for 200,000 votes, virtually all from Castillo-supporting poor Andean areas, to be annulled.
Despite lacking any evidence of misconduct in an election which national and international observers declared transparent, her challenge required Peru’s National Elections Jury to re-examine ballots.
In the lengthy period of uncertainty this created before a winner could be formally declared, fake news abounded of dire consequences if Castillo won. Speculation circulated about coup plots by right-wing forces. Nearly a hundred retired military officers signed a letter urging the armed forces not to recognise Castillo if he took office.
It took six weeks before Castillo was confirmed by the Elections Jury as the winner, which defeated candidate Fujimori said she would accept, while still declaring it “illegitimate” because “Peru Libre has stolen thousands of votes from us on election day.”
In his presidential speech to Congress on July 28, Castillo set out his government’s agenda, committing the state to attend to the needs of those left behind, indigenous peoples and the poor by providing more and better-quality government services to reduce inequality and improve livelihoods.
Priority would be given to overcoming the pandemic. A concrete promise was the introduction of a new “bono” to help counter its effects on the poor, while a vaccination programme would target vaccinating 70 per cent of the population by year-end (from a base of only 14 per cent). A major promise is a health system that is universal, free and decentralised.
On education, investment is planned to create more schools with more and better-paid teachers, with the promise of free entry into universities.
His economic programme reflects the difficulties his party may encounter in pushing through a radical transformation. While rejecting the neoliberal model, he offered reassurance that the government would not seek to appropriate private property but would be a more active regulator of business and protector of consumers and the environment.
A key sector is the mining industry, given corporations’ record of trampling over the rights of campesino communities. Future investment projects will have to achieve “social profit” by developing local economies while benefiting local people, although Castillo did not mention any increases in corporate taxation.
Securing major change within the current system of Peruvian democracy will be difficult, given Peru’s political and economic elites’ ability to stifle moves to achieve greater regional, social and ethnic equality.
In the 130-seat Congress, the Peru Libre party, although the largest with 37 representatives, has only 13 more seats than Fujimori’s party, with the remaining 69 seats shared out between eight remaining parties. Only one, Juntos por el Peru (Together for Peru), is unarguably left-wing.
This may be partly addressed by Castillo’s plan to establish a new constitution, to be drawn up by an elected Constituent Assembly, as Chile is currently doing.
In foreign policy, an early welcome move is Foreign Affairs Minister Hector Bejar’s announcement that Peru will withdraw from the Lima Group, which sided with self-declared “interim president” Juan Guaido in his efforts to overthrow the elected government of Nicolas Maduro.
Bejar has also condemned the use of illegal coercive measures by the US against Cuba and Venezuela, as well as committing Peru to rejoin the Union of South American Nations (Unasur) and strengthen other regional groupings.
There are further signs, though, that Peru’s right-wing forces are not content with the election result. A group of violent protesters attempted to reach the president’s residence three days after his inauguration, requiring security measures to be reinforced.
Castillo and his government will require sustained international support to help ensure that it can survive and carry out its progressive agenda. Let us all stand together internationally in solidarity.
Add your name to a solidarity statement with the Left in Peru at https://bit.ly/solidaritywithperu.
This article originally appeared in The Morning Star