LIMA, Peru – On paper, Peru’s presidential candidates on Sunday were a former leftist schoolteacher with no government experience and the right-wing daughter of an imprisoned ex-president who ruled the country with an iron fist.
Yet Peruvian voters were faced with an even more basic choice: to stick to the neoliberal economic model that has dominated the country for the past three decades, achieving some earlier successes but ultimately failing, critics say, to provide meaningful support to millions of Peruvians during the pandemic.
“The model disappointed a lot of people,” said Cesia Caballero, 24, a video producer. The virus, she said, “was the last straw that tipped the glass.”
Peru suffered the region’s worst economic contraction during the pandemic, pushing nearly 10% of its population back into poverty. Last Monday, the country announced that the death toll from the virus was almost triple what had been previously reported, suddenly raising its per capita death rate to the highest in the world. Millions of people were left out of work and many more were evicted.
Left-wing candidate Pedro Castillo, 51, a labor activist, has vowed to overhaul the political and economic system to tackle poverty and inequality, replacing the current constitution with one that will give the state a bigger role in the economy.
His opponent, Keiko Fujimori, 46, has pledged to defend the free market model constructed by his father, Alberto Fujimori, who was initially credited with repelling violent left-wing insurgencies in the 1990s, but who is now despised by many as a corrupt autocrat. .
With 61 percent of the vote counted early on Monday, Ms. Fujimori led the way, 52.4 percent to 47.5 percent. Polls had shown the candidates were almost tied, but many voters were frustrated with their options.
Mr Castillo, who has never held a post before, teamed up with a former Radical governor convicted of corruption to launch his candidacy. Ms. Fujimori has been jailed three times as part of a money laundering investigation and faces 30 years in prison, accused of leading a criminal organization that trafficked illegal donations during an election campaign in the United States. ‘a previous presidential candidacy. She denies the charges.
“We are between the precipice and the abyss,” said Augusto ChÃ¡vez, 60, an artisan jeweler from Lima, who said he could cast a degraded ballot in protest. Voting is compulsory in Peru. âI think extremes are bad for a country. And they represent two extremes.
Mr Castillo and Ms Fujimori each won less than 20% of the vote in a crowded first round in April that forced Sunday’s run-off election.
The election follows a difficult five-year period in which the country has had four presidents and two congresses. And it comes as the pandemic has taken voter dissatisfaction to new levels, fueling anger over unequal access to public services and growing frustration with politicians trapped in seemingly endless corruption scandals and regulations. account policies.
The hospital system has been so strained by the pandemic that many have died from lack of oxygen, while others have paid doctors for places in intensive care units – only to be turned away in agony.
Whoever wins on Sunday, said Peruvian sociologist LucÃa Dammert, “Peru’s future is a very turbulent future”.
âThe deep inequalities and the deep frustrations of the population have arisen, and there is no organization or actor, be it private companies, the State, the unions, to make this heard. “
When Ms. Fujimori’s father came to power in 1990 as a populist alien, he quickly reneged on a campaign promise not to impose free-market âshockâ policies pushed by his rival and Western economists.
The measures he used – deregulation, cuts in public spending, privatization of industry – helped end years of hyperinflation and recession. The constitution he inaugurated in 1993 limited the state’s ability to participate in commercial activities and break down monopolies, strengthened the autonomy of the central bank, and protected foreign investment.
Subsequent centrist and right-wing governments signed more than a dozen free trade agreements, and Peru’s pro-business policies have been declared a success, credited with Peru’s record-breaking poverty reduction during the boom. raw materials of this century.
But little has been done to address Peru’s dependence on commodity exports and long-standing social inequalities, or to provide health care, education and public services to its people.
The pandemic revealed the weakness of Peruvian bureaucracy and the underfunding of its public health system. The country had only a small fraction of the intensive care unit beds its peers had, and the government was slow and inconsistent in providing even a small cash aid to the needy. Informal workers found themselves without a safety net, which led many to turn to high-interest loans from private banks.
“The pandemic has shown that the underlying problem is the order of priorities,” said David Rivera, Peruvian economist and political scientist. âSupposedly, we had been saving money for so long to use it in times of crisis, and what we saw during the pandemic was that the priority continued to be macroeconomic stability, and do not prevent people from dying and going hungry. “
Ms Fujimori blamed the country’s problems not on its economic model, but on how former presidents and other leaders have used it. Even so, she says, some adjustments are needed, such as increasing the minimum wage and pensions for the poor.
She has presented her campaign against Mr. Castillo as a battle between democracy and communism, sometimes using Venezuela’s socialist-inspired government, now mired in crisis, as a foil. Mr. Castillo, originally from the highlands of northern Peru, gained national recognition by leading a teachers’ union strike in 2017. He campaigns by wearing the wide-brimmed hat of Andean farmers and has appeared on horseback and dancing with supporters.
âFor us in the countryside, we want someone who knows what it’s like to work in the fields,â said DemÃ³stenes ReÃ¡tegui.
When the pandemic began, Mr. ReÃ¡tegui, 29, was among thousands of Peruvians who hiked and hitchhiked from Lima to his rural family home after a government lockdown pushed workers migrants like him to quit their jobs.
It took him 28 days.
Mr Castillo has revealed little about how to keep vague promises to ensure that the country’s copper, gold and natural gas resources benefit Peruvians more broadly. He promised not to seize the assets of the companies, but rather to renegotiate the contracts.
He said he wanted to restrict imports of agricultural products to support local farmers, a policy that economists said would lead to higher food prices.
If he wins, it will be the clearest repudiation of the country’s political elite since Mr. Fujimori took office in 1990.
âWhy do we have so much inequality? Doesn’t that scandalize them? Mr. Castillo said at a rally in southern Peru recently, referring to the country’s elites.
âThey can’t lie to us anymore. People have woken up, âhe said. âWe can take this country back! “