Johns Hopkins University Press

Peru's 2021 presidential election saw disaffected and discontented voters throwing their support behind antisystem outsider Pedro Castillo and Keiko Fujimori. The 2021 election reflects the persistence of trends that have long characterized Peru's political system, most notably the extreme weakness of the country's political parties. To these trends were added a compound crisis comprising political, economic, and public-health dimensions that further increased citizen disaffection, political fragmentation, and the salience of preexisting regional and socioeconomic divides. All this led voters to consider more radical options at the ballot box; a runoff between candidates with dubious democratic credentials that deeply polarized society followed. Amid polarization and unfounded allegations of fraud by Keiko Fujimori's Fuerza Popular, prospects for Peru's democracy look bleak.

At the time of this writing on 16 June 2021, it appeared that Peruvian voters had chosen Pedro Castillo as their new president over Keiko Fujimori. The June 6 runoff was so tight that Castillo carried it with just 50.13 percent, or about 44,000 votes out of more than 18.5 million cast in this nation of 33 million. This razor-thin verdict came on the heels of a three-year period during which Peru had had three presidents, none of them elected. The runoff drew a turnout of 74.6 percent of eligible voters. The outcome capped the most turbulent era in Peruvian political history since the restoration of democracy after authoritarian president Alberto Fujimori, Keiko Fujimori's father, fled the country and resigned in November 2000. Peru is now entering a period of great uncertainty as charges of vote fraud fly and political polarization goes from bad to worse. The legitimacy of the newly elected government has been damaged, and prospects for overcoming the recent political crisis look bleak. Democracy could suffer derailment by authoritarian forces, in the worst case, and even in the best case will have to endure further instability and the loss of yet more legitimacy in the eyes of citizens.

The June runoff followed an April 11 general election to replace the transitional government that had formed on 17 November 2020, after a political crisis had caused the presidency to change hands twice in a single week. April 2021 was the regularly scheduled election date. The crisis had begun with Congress's decision to oust President Martín Vizcarra five months in advance of the vote.1 Protests breaking out in many places at once—something not often seen in Peru—had rejected the "usurper Congress" and demanded that the new president, Manuel Merino, step down. Prominent at the head of the demonstrations had [End Page 48] been Peru's young people, a group not previously known for being politically mobilized. As the protests and the police repression in response to them had gone viral on social media, Merino (who had been in line for the national presidency by virtue of his post as president of Congress) had quit. To take his place, Congress had chosen one of its members, centrist Francisco Sagasti, to head a transitional administration. Another chapter in Peru's long-running institutional conflict between the executive and legislative branches of government had been written.

This troubling episode, during whose course police had killed two young demonstrators while wounding hundreds more, had been the preface to a 2021 campaign season marked by widespread citizen apathy, electoral fragmentation, and huge uncertainty. While Peruvian electoral campaigns in the 2000s had been notorious for their fluidity, unpredictability, and highly fragmented quality, this election surpassed all precedents in those regards. With nineteen candidates competing for the presidency, opinion surveys taken as late as a week before the vote showed a statistical draw among five candidates who split about half the vote, while close to another third of respondents said that they were undecided or planned to cast null or blank ballots. Shock was widespread when the April 11 votes were counted and a radical-leftist candidate, Pedro Castillo of the Free Peru (Perú Libre, or PL) party, came in first with 18.9 percent. The share of respondents who told pollsters that they intended to vote for him had begun to rise late—only a week before the election, he had been in sixth place with 6.5 percent—then had increased steadily in the campaign's final days.

A teacher, union leader, and rondero (rural local-defense militiaman) from the northern highlands, Castillo became nationally known for leading a months-long 2017 teachers' strike during which he rejected the authority of the national teachers' union. A self-defined Marxist, Castillo promised to change the neoliberal model for what he called a "popular economy with markets," to nationalize strategic sectors such as mining, to review signed public contracts, and to prioritize support for domestic demand.

Drawing inspiration from the populist examples of Bolivia's Evo Morales and Ecuador's Rafael Correa, Castillo also promised to change the 1993 Constitution by convoking the election of a national assembly. Beyond this, he vowed to deactivate constitutionally autonomous institutions such as the Constitutional Tribunal and the Defensoría del Pueblo (ombudsman's office), while "correcting" the actions of regulatory agencies such as those charged with overseeing transport and higher education. This stated intention to interfere with independent organs of horizontal accountability makes clear Castillo's lack of liberal-democratic credentials.

Running as the candidate of her Fuerza Popular (FP) party, Keiko Fujimori finished the first round in second place with 13.4 percent, followed [End Page 49] closely by radical conservative Rafael López Aliaga with 11.8 percent. In this, her third bid for Peru's presidency, Fujimori campaigned with a more authoritarian and conservative discourse, promising to use the mano dura (hard hand) against crime and disorder, highlighting the achievements of her father's authoritarian government, and openly admitting that she would use her presidential powers to pardon him. She spoke of his corrupt acts and rights abuses—offenses of which he has been duly convicted by Peruvian courts—as mere "mistakes."

How did a country that in late 2020 saw unforeseen mass mobilizations in support of democracy end up, just a few months later, having to make its presidential-runoff choice between two candidates with dubious democratic credentials? How did a candidate who has never held elected office, who comes from a peripheral province, and who ran on a radical-left platform manage to win the presidency in supposedly conservative, status quo–oriented Peru? And what are the prospects for Peruvian democracy in the years to come?

Overall, the 2021 election reflects the persistence of important trends that have characterized the Peruvian political system for some time. These trends include the extreme weakness of existing political parties and the consequent fragmentation of the party system, as well as the habits of improvisation that political actors have developed amid these conditions of fluid political preferences and weak partisan loyalties. Next to these trends must be placed the sporadic emergence of overlapping socioeconomic and territorial divides that pit Lima and the coastal regions, which are more integrated into the export-oriented economy, against the less integrated, peripheral areas of the country.

Castillo is the candidate of those peripheral areas, but they alone were not enough to make him president. It must be understood that the 2021 campaign took place amid an acute socioeconomic crisis that changed the priorities of a cluster of previously better economically incorporated citizens, and only after years of political-institutional instability had re-shaped the political system. Within this new scenario, citizen disaffection and discontent played a big role in driving electoral preferences, lending fresh salience to regional and socioeconomic cleavages that had been apparent in the 2006 election results before being obscured by economic growth. The fragmented party system, meanwhile, helped the more radical and vocal options to gain life.

Bad Blood and Corruption Scandals

Since 2015, Peruvians have watched power struggles between the executive and legislative branches of government intensify under the influence of external "system-shocking" events. The first of these was the sprawling international corruption scandal that grew out of Brazil's Lava Jato (Operation Car Wash) investigations and follow-on probes [End Page 50] into bribes paid by Odebrecht, the giant Brazilian construction conglomerate. The second and more recent event was the covid-19 pandemic.

In 2011, an earlier left-populist candidate from "peripheral" Peru, Ollanta Humala, had narrowly defeated Keiko Fujimori in a runoff for the presidency. Her FP retained a significant bloc of seats in the unicameral, 130-member Congress, however, and began seeking to wield seldom-used mechanisms for exerting legislative control over other branches.2

Five years later, the politicized use of horizontal-control mechanisms intensified after FP won 73 seats in Congress while Keiko Fujimori suffered another close presidential loss, this time to neoliberal Pedro Pablo Kuczynski.3 From the outset, FP set itself up as a confrontational and even obstructionist force. The party used its majority to censure the education minister. Then, in 2017, FP defeated votes of confidence in first the economy and finance minister, and then the whole cabinet. No one had foreseen how relentlessly virulent the congressional fujimoristas would prove themselves to be, or how little they would care about public rejection.4 Dormant and vague institutional rules became weaponized as the new administration and its opposition faced off in a game of "constitutional hardball"5 that tested the institutions of Peruvian democracy to their limits.6

At first sight, the bitterness of the struggle seemed surprising, given that Kuczynski was himself on the right and had backed Fujimori over Humala in 2011. The neoliberal, technocratic president stood on the opposite side of a divide that separated him from the populist conservative movement represented by FP, however.7 Moreover, while FP had made what seemed (by the standards of Peru's weak party system) to be impressive progress in party-building,8 it still had not become coherent and institutionalized enough to develop longer time horizons when making decisions.9 As of 2016, FP still included as candidates an array of independents—each with an individual agenda and set of interests—whose actions were hard for party leaders to predict, much less control.

What made the legislative-executive hardball even harder was the exogenous shock, arriving only six months after Kuczynski's July 2016 inauguration, of the Lava Jato–Odebrecht scandal. In December 2016, Odebrecht officials struck a deal with the U.S. Justice Department in which the company admitted that it had offered kickbacks to public officials in twelve countries as part of a scheme to win large infrastructure contracts. Peruvian prosecutors immediately launched investigations based on these far-reaching admissions, which were rocking Latin American establishments from the Dominican Republic and Mexico to Chile and Argentina.10

The interbranch clashes quickly became intertwined with the corruption allegations, which were being made against politicians both in and out of power and across all branches of government. At first, when suspicions seemed to focus mainly on former presidents Humala and Alejandro [End Page 51] Toledo (2001–2006), fujimoristas and others in Congress saw a chance to discredit these rivals while shielding their own leaders. Interestingly, however, these efforts backfired.11 Legislators were never able to control the judicial task force in charge of the case, in part because some of their allies in the judiciary became implicated in another domestic corruption scandal known as the Cuellos Blancos (White Collars) case. With no political shielding to hinder them, the Odebrecht investigations ended up implicating former president Alan García (1985–90, 2006–11), who committed suicide in April 2019 when a judge ordered his detention. Keiko Fujimori was placed under pretrial arrest in October 2018, and did not gain release on bail until May 2020, after the pandemic hit. With her in prison, FP and the fujimoristas lost a portion of their influence in Congress and also the judicial sphere.12

The Odebrecht case eventually came to implicate Kuczynski too, giving Congress an excuse to impeach him and leading finally to his resignation in March 2018, after less than two years as president.13 Upon stepping up to the top job from the post of first vice-president, Vizcarra focused on anticorruption appeals to help him confront Congress and build public support for himself as a reformist president. In December 2018, he won voters' overwhelming approval of a constitutional referendum to reform the governing body of the national judiciary; to ban parties from using private funds to buy political advertising during campaigns (only public financing is allowed); and to bar members of Congress from consecutive reelection.

The referendum's success boosted Vizcarra's popularity and dealt a sharp blow to the obstructionist legislature. The contest between them did not end there, however. In 2019, Vizcarra named an expert commission to recommend further political reforms. A majority of Congress resisted approving the bills that the executive put forward in keeping with the bulk of this commission's recommendations, thereby raising tensions between the branches to an even higher pitch. In September 2019, Vizcarra used his constitutional power to dissolve Congress after it tried to appoint six new Constitutional Tribunal members despite presidential calls to make more transparent and accountable the process used to select such jurists (Vizcarra construed this as a second congressional show of no confidence in his administration, thereby triggering his dissolution authority). By sending the FP majority in Congress home pending new elections, the president deprived Keiko Fujimori of her institutional stronghold.

Vizcarra respected the established procedures for handling the crisis and did not concentrate power, thus securing the continuity of democracy.14 He set new legislative elections for 26 January 2020 and stuck to that calendar. Only nineteen of the 130 "dissolved" lawmakers ran for reelection, and of those only two won—both of them well-known opponents of the fujimoristas who had dominated the previous legislature.15 In particular, FP took a beating as its seat total plunged from 72 to 15. [End Page 52] Five new parties won representation. Popular Action (AP), the largest single party in the fractured new Congress, won just 25 seats.

Even with the fujimorista majority gone, however, confrontation persisted. In addition to being fragmented, Congress was also populated by second-tier politicians prone to the influence of particularistic interest groups. Vizcarra, who had opted not to present a list in the elections, soon found himself in fresh conflicts with an array of inexperienced legislators and a host of private interests. Looking to win the battle for public opinion as the covid pandemic devastated the economy, Congress approved several populist measures that invaded the executive's exclusive competence to define spending initiatives. Since the new Congress had been snap-elected to finish the five-year term of the dissolved Congress and the constitution forbids dissolving Congress in the last year of its mandate, the weapon that Vizcarra had used in 2019 was out of his reach. The emboldened legislature defied him again and again.16

In November 2020, amid the escalating institutional conflict, fresh press leaks from the Odebrecht investigations hinted at a plea deal that would expose Vizcarra as having taken bribes when he was a governor in southern Peru from 2011 to 2014.17 Although the president retained majority support in opinion surveys, a 105-member supermajority of Congress ousted him on November 9 by declaring the presidency vacant on account of the incumbent's "permanent moral incapacity." The president of Congress, Manuel Merino, took over as interim chief executive, but mass protests across the country forced him to resign after just five days. Congress then chose from within its ranks a new transitional president (Sagasti) who had not voted for Vizcarra's removal.

Two important changes that shed light on the 2021 election and two others that are relevant to assessing democracy's prospects in Peru were incubated during this political-institutional crisis. First, citizens have grown even more alienated from the political system as they have watched the clash of powers stumble forward amid corruption scandals and a severe crisis of the economy and public health. Second, these alienated citizens feel even less inclined than before to vote for establishment candidates, widening the representation gap still further. Third, the new presidential term begins with Congress, despite its lost legitimacy, standing stronger than before in relation to the executive branch.18 Finally, the bouts of institutional conflict—not to mention the split on the right between fujimoristas and non-fujimoristas—have weakened what had been a strong coalition of technocrats and economic elites [End Page 53] aligned behind a neoliberal consensus. Even before the June runoff, a majority in Congress had already begun challenging certain institutional underpinnings of the neoliberal regime that has been since the 1990s the leading source of continuity in an otherwise fluid political system.19

The First Round: (More) Fragmentation

Peruvians from across the country and all walks of life had hung on every turn of November 2020's convoluted and chaotic events, but once the nineteen presidential candidates and twenty congressional lists began officially running in December, public interest faded. The race unfolded in a cloud of civic indifference. Campaigning went forward, but many voters remained disengaged and did not pick a candidate to back. As of late March 2021, a record 30 percent said that they remained undecided or planned to cast null or blank ballots.

Many voters simply did not like anything that was on offer. Just a week before the April 11 voting, surveys showed five candidates in a statistical tie for first (with the identities of some of the five varying from one firm's survey to another's). Castillo's candidacy had begun to gain ground, but he appeared to be trailing the top group, with around 6.5 percent of likely voters backing him.

The last week of the campaign was excruciating. Peruvian law bans the publication of preelection polls. Surveys circulated through private channels to which only the better-connected had access. These surveys suggested that Keiko Fujimori and the economist and author Hernando de Soto were the frontrunners, but captured glimpses of Castillo coming up quickly on the left as he won nearly 13 percent in an April 10 mock balloting. Most of the country, not privy to private surveys, was shocked by his first-round total of nearly 19 percent of valid ballots. The next day, as the official electoral count advanced, the results confirmed that Fujimori—a person whom 70 percent of voters had as of mid-March told pollsters they would never support—was headed for her third presidential runoff since 2011.20

What can explain why this mostly boring first round finished with such a shocking ending? To begin with, the first round confirmed that citizen disaffection, already high by regional standards,21 had reached the highest pitch seen since the democratic transition of 2000. After five years of corruption scandals and political showdowns, no candidate could elicit the kind of passionate support that had once been a feature of Peruvian politics. Peruvians eschewed all the politicians and their parties even more intensely. In this regard, Castillo's status as a newcomer whose candidacy caught fire late in the race probably helped him. Yet even he received a slice of the first-round vote considerably smaller than the share (24.3 percent) that the third-place finisher had won in the 2001 presidential election. In presidential races from that one through 2016's, the top three first-round candidates had garnered a total share [End Page 54] that averaged just under 80 percent of all valid votes cast. In 2021, the top three combined for just 45 percent.

Along with disaffection, extreme partisan fragmentation contributed to the scale of citizen disengagement from the race. In the absence of organized parties, neither conservatives nor leftists nor centrists were able to coordinate. This inability to coordinate was particularly noticeable on the right, which splintered its support across six candidacies that together won about 45 percent of the valid votes. This is surprising considering that the division on the right in the 2016 election was partly responsible for the political drama that came later. Without parties to lengthen their time horizons, rightists were unable to protect their own interests.

This greater fragmentation of the right came after five years during which social issues, including gender equality and LGBTQ rights, had become matters of heated and even harsh contention. After the 2020 electoral punishment of fujimorismo for starting and escalating the institutional crisis, a conservative alternative appeared in the form of far-right candidate Rafael López Aliaga. He finished third on April 11 with 11.8 percent, a few hundred-thousand votes behind Fujimori. Castillo and Yonhy Lescano of AP (9 percent) may be radical and progressive on economic policy, but they share a profoundly conservative stance on social issues.

Ironically, the splits on the right helped fujimorismo to make it to the runoff. In contrast with other, less rooted political options, fujimorismo has a stronghold of loyal partisans who buoyed Keiko Fujimori's candidacy throughout the race. She likely picked up some of the right-leaning voters who had been considering López Aliaga or even de Soto (7.5 percent) but who had been put off by those candidates' lackluster debate performances. She may also have gained votes from some who viewed her as the strongest bulwark against what they considered the threat of Castillo becoming president.

Finally, pandemic-related restrictions on campaigning also mattered. Unlike political advertisements or social media, rallies and other campaign events allow candidates to connect personally with Peruvian voters and more effectively persuade them.22 This seemed to be the case in this election, too. The two candidates who showed the least respect for public-gathering restrictions, Castillo and López Aliaga, were the ones who rose the most in the polls toward the race's close.

The protests of November 2020, against Merino's assumption of the interim presidency, did not end up being decisive for the race. These protests occurred after the race had already been convened and the rules settled, leaving no room for new actors to become part of it. Second, despite high expectations for the new generation that had stood up during the protests, the truth is that the mobilizations had been more reactive than proactive, with inexperienced participants who joined spontaneously out of rage and coordinated only through social media. Third, and importantly, candidates who had not been involved in Vizcarra's removal [End Page 55] —and who therefore might have capitalized on making it an issue—in fact opted not to focus their campaigns on it. As unpopular as Merino's accession to the presidency had been, the party landscape is so fractured that parties which backed Vizcarra's ouster did not necessarily suffer at the polls for having taken that stance. The fujimoristas, Vizcarra's most vociferous opponents, added nine seats in the election and now have a total of two-dozen seats, making FP the second-largest single party in Congress. Their bloc is exceeded in size only by the 37 seats that Castillo's party, Perú Libre, picked up in this, its very first race.

Toward the Runoff

While partisan disorganization matters, the "elephant in the room" is obviously the compounded crisis that Peru has been suffering and which has made many voters willing to take risks in hopes of changing a situation that has been affecting them personally and in dire ways.23 In this regard, the 2021 election resembles the election of 1990, when a Peru wracked by hyperinflation and the Maoist violence of the Shining Path insurgency had turned to a classic outsider candidate named Alberto Fujimori, then a little-known agricultural engineer.24

The impact of the covid-19 pandemic on Peruvian society has been nothing short of traumatic. Peru has experienced one of the world's highest mortality rates from the disease, and indeed has suffered the most deaths per thousand people of any country in Latin America. The election coincided with the beginning of a second covid wave, which mounted in Peru during April 2021. The covid-related drops in GDP and employment that Peru has experienced have been among the world's steepest; the country now has the most sharply rising poverty rate in the region.25 After years of reasonably good economic growth, ever more Peruvians every day are finding that they must pool resources just to secure enough to eat.

Unsurprisingly, then, behind changing electoral preferences—and especially a new willingness to take a chance on an outsider such as Castillo—lay deep and growing discontent. The economic growth that had obscured socioeconomic and territorial divides following the 2006 election had faltered,26 leaving these cleavages sharply exposed once again.27 Unattached, disenchanted voters searched among the center-left candidates for the likeliest change-maker, and settled late in the race on Castillo. Indeed, the polls showed that a significant proportion of undecided voters up to the last two weeks of the campaign were Peruvians farther down the ladder of socioeconomic status, and those least interested in politics. These voters lifted Castillo first into the runoff, and then to an election victory.

Amid the compounded crisis of institutions, of covid, and of what the covid lockdowns and dislocations have done to Peru's export-dependent economy, the divides of region and of socioeconomic class have reasserted themselves with a vengeance. The territorial divide is especially [End Page 56] stark. The map of the runoff results reveals "peripheral" Peru as a sea favoring Castillo and change, while Lima (in demographic terms a huge conurbation that is home to about 30 percent of the national population), five coastal electoral districts, and two in Amazonia voted for Fujimori and the defense of the neoliberal status quo. The 2021 runoff map thus strongly resembles the 2006 map.28 But while in 2006, as commodity prices rode high and the economy boomed, a majority concentrated in coastal areas voted to maintain the status quo, the compounded crisis in which Peru finds itself fifteen years later has tipped the balance in favor of change demanded by those living in the rest of the national territory.

Castillo rallied the discontent that the compounded crisis has bred by giving voice to a populist discourse that paints the heartless rich and the capital's corrupt political class as enemies of the people and their interests. He promised to convene a constituent assembly "to create a constitution that has the color, smell and flavor of the people."29 He even threatened to deactivate autonomous institutions that do not respect the will of "the people." As he put it, if "this government goes to the Constitutional Court and it rules against the people, we will immediately deactivate the Constitutional Court and the next court will have to be elected by popular mandate, as well as all the judges and prosecutors."30 Although Castillo later offered assurances that he would not deactivate this court if elected, concerns about PL's democratic credentials grew with the publication of a 2020 audio recording on which an elected PL legislator can be heard saying "we are socialists and our path to a new constitution is a first step. If we take power, we will not let it go. With all the respect that you and your democratic bullshit deserve, our idea is to stay and establish a revolutionary process in Peru."31

Castillo's populist discourse was effective in mobilizing mostly poorer and rural voters, in part due to their tendency to identify with his humble personal manner and origins. He embodied hopes for a change that will favor "the people" at last. This strategy allowed him to consolidate a solid "floor" of 40 percent support during the runoff race despite the blatantly improvised character of his campaign, his penchant for self-contradiction, and the mediocre performance that he (and the team of "experts" behind him) exhibited in the official debates.32 Yet his populist strategy failed to win over enough undecided voters to give him anything resembling a comfortable victory, and instead has left him (at best) scraping into office with the thinnest of majorities.

Meanwhile, Fuerza Popular deployed a very aggressive campaign of fear, calling Peruvians to unite against the threat of "communism" and defend democracy and individual liberties, including private property. This nationalist and even McCarthyist rhetoric was accompanied by several waves of fake news. This campaign of fear was actively supported by businessmen who paid for large lighted billboards and other forms of messaging warning people against the dangers of communism. Based on [End Page 57] this strategy of fear, Keiko Fujimori managed to politicize a social-class divide and rally center-right voters who viewed her with skepticism and had backed other candidates during the first round. In surveys, support for her began slowly but steadily rising, with her strongest backing concentrated mostly in Lima and middle and high socioeconomic sectors. Noticing that poorer sectors were remaining unmoved, FP during the last two weeks of the race started promising all kinds of economic incentives, including an "oxygen bonus" worth about US$2,500 to all families who had lost someone to covid.

Both Castillo and Fujimori chose to campaign in ways that made the economic model the center of a polarizing clash that was portrayed as a matter of life or death. Neither candidate made any effort to move to the center. Neither took the democratic and reformist agenda that had been defended in the streets in November 2020 seriously enough to go beyond mere gestures, such as signing an oath to support democracy that civil society groups had written and asked the candidates to formally endorse.33 In the end, this shared unwillingness to do more than posture as moderate may have done more to harm Keiko Fujimori—who, after all, is a member of the political establishment—than it did to hurt Castillo's avowedly "outsider" candidacy. In such a tight race, a more credible commitment to democracy might have swayed an outcome-changing number of antifujimoristas (being against the Fujimoris is an important negative political identity in Peru)34 to put aside their misgivings and vote for her. Instead, she hardened her rhetoric and brought old fujimorista figures back to the fore as part of her technical team—steps that may have pushed away enough persuadable antifujimoristas to cost her the presidency for the third time in a decade.35

The final leg of the runoff race was agonizingly close. Keiko Fujimori's support continued to rise slowly. Unpublished surveys taken the day before the election showed a statistical tie with an edge to Fujimori. Members of the upper classes and fujimoristas who were privy to this information believed that they had the election won. The problem came later when the polling places closed and the rapid vote count from Ipsos showed Castillo leading the race, contradicting the exit polls. As the hours ticked by, a razor's-edge contest began to come into focus, with Castillo in the lead by a little more than a quarter of one percentage point.

The economic and social elite panicked. False reports concerning what the "communists" (PL is an avowedly Marxist-Leninist party, although Castillo says that he is not a communist) would do once in power, such as taking away middle-class homes and banning all sorts of valued imports, flooded social media. This included fake news about alleged fraudulent PL tactics as well as calls on the armed forces to seize power before the "communists" could do so.36 It was in this overheated climate that Keiko Fujimori convened a press conference in which she alleged tabulation fraud, contending that "there has been a strategy of [End Page 58] Perú Libre to distort or delay the results that reflect the popular will."37 Then FP initiated procedures to nullify the vote counts from more than seven-hundred electoral tables (each accounting for about two-hundred votes) concentrated in Castillo-supporting low-income areas. But only 134 of them met the legal deadline,38 which is now being disputed by FP lawyers. Matters dragged on. Both sides have been holding rallies and protests. Although these have so far been peaceful, there is concern because FP followers have protested against some election officials at their homes, which is clearly a form of intimidation.39

With 100 percent of results in, Castillo won the election by 44,058 votes. As of this writing on June 16, however, Peruvians are still waiting to hear official confirmation of who will govern them for the next five years. They will have to keep waiting, moreover, until electoral authorities rule on the hundreds of appeals requesting nullifications of vote tallies. Meanwhile, there are worries that things will get out of control.

More Trouble Ahead

Now that the voting is over and the electoral process is crawling to a close, what comes next? The prospects for Peruvian democracy look bleak. The 2021 election's biggest loser was the reformist and democratic center, broadly defined. That center now stands bereft of both social organization and political representation. Undemocratic tendencies and interest groups can be expected to enjoy much greater freedom to assert their demands amid intense polarization. Containing these groups will be an uphill struggle.

The unprecedented levels of nullification requests mean that the official proclamation of results may yet take weeks. Meanwhile, there is a tense political environment and fears of violence. On the right, FP leaders, elites, and candidates are questioning the electoral authorities' decisions. Some in FP have called for a new election, while others have even said that the military should intervene. On the left, PL is deploying a legal strategy to defend votes for Castillo, while Castillo himself remains mostly silent. Recently, he briefly told the press that he and his party are patiently awaiting the official certification of the result, but added that they "would not allow the people's vote to continue to be discriminated against."40

Even if Castillo's runoff victory is confirmed, continuing political instability remains a serious risk. Castillo is an improvisational outsider with an unsteady leadership style. If he won the race (which seems likely as of this writing), it was more despite his faults than due to his talents. Castillo ran as a guest on the ticket of PL, which is in fact Vladimir Cerrón's registered socialist party. Cerrón had to extend this invitation after failing to seal an electoral alliance with Verónika Mendoza's New Peru. Cerrón, a former regional governor of Junín who has been sentenced on corruption charges, could not himself run due to his legal conviction. [End Page 59] A Marxist, Cuban-trained medical doctor, Cerrón is clearly much more radical than Castillo and there remain questions as to whether he could end up radicalizing the elected government by virtue of the leverage that he can exert as the real boss of PL's parliamentary bloc. As for Castillo, he has yet to show that he commands Perú Libre in any meaningful way.

Congress, though fragmented, remains potent as an institution, and there is the lingering specter of Vizcarra's deposition on grounds of what amounts to a vague morals clause. Having ejected one president in this way, will Congress entertain notions of giving another the same treatment when legislative-executive relations once again grow strained, as likely they will? While Castillo may be able to marshal enough votes (if his alliance with Cerrón holds and a few additional votes from the opposition can be secured) to block a vacancy procedure such as the one that was used to unseat Vizcarra, the right still has plenty of seats that it can use to destabilize the government or to win a game of political hardball in the medium term.

To the wild card of congressional moves to declare the presidency vacant and the threat of authoritarian tendencies emanating from segments of the right, we must add the risk that Castillo will carry out his populist promises and use the powers of the presidency to handcuff or manipulate the system's institutional "balancers." Would he, for instance, resolve to seek a constitutional assembly through extra-institutional means? Might he even seek to close Congress, as Vizcarra did, on possibly dubious no-confidence grounds in order to trigger the election of a legislature more to his liking? Might he try to interfere with the judiciary? Although forays by Castillo down such authoritarian avenues cannot be ruled out, his chances for success will hinge more on his capacity to mobilize sustained support in the streets, including those of Lima—a difficult feat to accomplish in Peru.

If civil unrest and protest intensify, as they could well do, what will be the response from a national police service that is still struggling to recover the legitimacy that it lost due to its excessive uses of force during the November 2020 protests? More police overreactions would be a disaster, but so would a police force too cowed and demoralized to protect innocent citizens, keep basic order, and step firmly between angry street factions before they can hurt each other. The institutional crisis among civilian politicians is bad enough, but if it spreads until it sucks in the armed organs of national security—the police and even the military—we may see to our sorrow that things in Peru have yet more room to grow worse.

Paula Muñoz

Paula Muñoz is associate professor of social and political sciences at the Universidad del Pacífico in Lima. Her essay (with Eduardo Dargent) "Peru: A Close Win for Continuity" appeared in the October 2016 issue of the Journal of Democracy.


1. Vizcarra himself had not been elected to the presidency. He had been elected to the first vice-presidency in 2016, and had acceded to the presidency when Pedro Pablo Kuczynski, facing impeachment, had resigned in March 2018.

2. Paula Muñoz and Yamile Guibert, "Perú: El Fin Del Optimismo," Revista de Ciencia Política 36, no. 1 (2016): 313–38.

3. Eduardo Dargent and Paula Muñoz, "Peru: A Close Win for Continuity," Journal of Democracy 27 (October 2016): 145–58.

4. Alberto Vergara, "Latin America's Shifting Politics: Virtue, Fortune, and Failure in Peru," Journal of Democracy 29 (October 2018): 65–76.

5. Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt, How Democracies Die (New York: Crown, 2018).

6. Maritza Paredes and Daniel Encinas, "Perú 2019: Political Crisis and Institutional Outcome," Revista de Ciencia Politica 40, no. 2 (2020): 483–510.

7. Carlos Meléndez, "La derecha que se bifurca: Las vertientes populista-conservadora y tecnocrática-liberal en perú post-2000," Colombia Internacional 99 (2019): 3–27.

8. Steven Levitsky and Mauricio Zavaleta, "Why No Party-Building in Peru?" in Steven Levitsky et al., eds., Challenges of Party-Building in Latin America (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2016), 412–39.

9. Vergara, "Latin America's Shifting Politics."

10. Ezequiel González-Ocantos et al., "The Criminalization of Corruption in Latin America: Prosecutors, Politicians, and Voters During Lava Jato," unpubl. ms., 2021.

11. González-Ocantos et al., "Criminalization of Corruption in Latin America."

12. Zoila Ponce de León and Luis García Ayala, "Perú 2018: La precariedad política en tiempos de Lava Jato," Revista de Ciencia Politica 39, no. 2 (2019): 341–65.

13. For a detailed account of this convoluted episode, see Vergara, "Virtue, Fortune, and Failure in Peru" and Ponce and García, "Perú 2018."

14. Paredes and Encinas, "Perú 2019."

15. Eduardo Dargent and Stéphanie Rousseau, "Perú 2020: ¿El quiebre de la continuidad?" Revista de Ciencia Politica, forthcoming.

16. Dargent and Rousseau, "Perú 2020."

17. César Romero, "La declaración contra Martín Vizcarra fue un pedido del equipo Lava Jato," La República (Lima), 23 November 2020,

18. Paredes and Encinas, "Perú 2019"; Dargent and Rousseau, "Perú 2020."

19. Alberto Vergara and Daniel Encinas, "Continuity by Surprise: Explaining Institutional Stability in Contemporary Peru," Latin American Research Review 51, no. 1 (2016): 159–80.

21. Julio F. Carrión et al., Cultura Política de la Democracia en Perú y en Las Américas, 2016/17 (Lima: USAID, 2018).

22. Paula Muñoz, Buying Audiences: Clientelism and Electoral Campaigns When Parties Are Weak (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2019).

23. Kurt Weyland, The Politics of Market Reform in Fragile Democracies : Argentina, Brazil, Peru, and Venezuela (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2004).

24. Maxwell A. Cameron, Democracy and Authoritarianism in Peru: Political Coalitions and Social Change (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 1994).

25. Claudia Viale, "Peru: Updated Assessment of the Impact of the Coronavirus Pandemic on the Extractive Sector and Resource Governance," 2020,

26. The election of 2006 also featured a deep socioeconomic and territorial divide. In that race, a nationalist and radical-leftist candidate (Humala) was defeated by a candidate promising responsible change consistent with neoliberalism (García). See Cynthia McClintock, "A 'Left Turn' in Latin America? An Unlikely Comeback in Peru," Journal of Democracy 17 (October 2006): 95–109.

27. Paula Muñoz, "Peru's Democracy in Search of Representation—Divisive Politics and Democratic Dangers in Latin America," in Thomas Carothers and Andreas E. Feldmann, eds., Divisive Politics and Democratic Dangers in Latin America (Washington, D.C.: Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 2021),

34. Carlos Meléndez, El mal menor: Vínculos políticos en el Perú posterior al colapso del sistema de partidos (Lima: Instituto de Estudios Peruanos, 2019).

35. Dargent and Muñoz, "Peru"; Steven Levitsky, "Peru's 2011 Elections: A Surprising Left Turn," Journal of Democracy 22 (October 2011): 84–94.

36. Ministry of Defense of Peru (@MindefPeru), "Frente a la difusión en redes sociales con llamados a la intervención de las Fuerzas Armadas en asuntos netamente electorales o políticos," Twitter, 9 June 2021,

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