Source: Angela Ponce, Reuters
When he assumed Peru’s presidency on Wednesday, July 28, Pedro Castillo put one crisis to rest and turned his mind to two others.
Having weathered a months-long effort to delegitimize his victory in Peru’s June 6 presidential runoff, Castillo could finally begin addressing the problems that his voters elected him to resolve: foremost among them, how to repair a healthcare system devastated by the COVID-19 pandemic and overhaul a brittle and uneven economy that has failed many Peruvians.
It is an ambitious agenda that could cow the savviest of politicians. According to experts, it is one that also threatens to overwhelm Castillo, a 51-year-old political neophyte with a narrow popular mandate, few ties to Peru’s traditional elite, and a weak hand to play in the country’s next congress—an increasingly obstructionist body that has impeached four presidents in the last five years.
“The most likely scenario is an impeachment or some form of ungovernability,” said Paula Muñoz Chirinos, a professor of comparative politics at Lima’s Universidad del Pacífico. “The main power that Castillo has is public opinion and mobilizing people in his favor, but even to do that he will need to show results on very crucial things like the economy and [public] health.”
A former elementary school teacher and union leader from the remote Andean province of Chota, Castillo’s stunning ascent from near-complete unknown to presidential front-runner at initially inspired comparisons with Latin America’s populist strongmen, including former leaders like Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez and Bolivia’s Evo Morales.
But Castillo lacks many of the advantages those leaders enjoyed—and he got a taste for some of the challenges that could face his government last Monday, just two days before he was to be sworn in as president.
During the day, a coalition of right-leaning congressional representatives defeated Castillo’s allies in a vote to decide the leadership of Peru’s next congress, presenting significant obstacles to Castillo’s legislative agenda. At night, supporters of Castillo’s Perú Libre party protested outside the house of the president-elect, demanding that he appoint more party loyalists to his government.
The whiplash from both left and right underscores the predicament confronting Castillo: far from boasting the popular or elite support that has historically vaulted other Latin American leaders into power—and helped them cement it once they got there—Castillo finds himself caught between a party apparatus intent on radical reform, an obstructionist congress bent on preventing it, and an electorate that remains bitterly divided about significant reform in the first place.
Castillo’s partially predicament stems from his outlandish success. Whereas other Latin American leftists built strong bases of support prior to their first day in office, Castillo emerged from obscurity so quickly that he had little time to find allies outside his party, which was only founded (in its current iteration) in 2016, or in key sectors of the economy.
Prior to the election, Castillo’s only major foray into politics came in 2017, when he led Peru’s public teacher’s union on a two-month strike that many now regard as a failure. He remained an afterthought until he was selected to head Perú Libre’s presidential ticket in October of last year, an opportunity that fell to him after the founder of the party, Vladimir Cerrón, was disqualified from running in the election.
On the other hand, leaders like Chávez, Morales, or former President of Brazil Luiz Inácio “Lula” da Silva did not just spend years cultivating their personal and political brands. By the time they entered office, all three helmed well-established political movements (Chávez’s Movimiento Bolivariano Revolucionario 200, later the Movimiento Quinta República; Morales’s Movimiento al Socialismo (MAS); and Lula’s Partido dos Trabalhadores (Workers’ Party, or PT)) that boasted broad networks of popular support.
In Peru, meanwhile, many voters remain skeptical about the prospect of leftist reform.
While Castillo galvanized many poor and underrepresented voters with a promise to overhaul Peru’s neoliberal economic model, his leftist rhetoric spooked middle-class Peruvians who have benefited from the country’s economic revival or who still bear the scars of the country’s decade-long internal conflict with Sendero Luminoso (Shining Path), a Maoist insurgent movement that emerged in the 1980s.
The limits to Castillo’s popular mandate were also visible in the presidential runoff, which Castillo won by a mere 44,000 votes. Even then, many Peruvians voted for Castillo because they loathed his opponent, Keiko Fujimori. Fujimori, the daughter of imprisoned former president Alberto Fujimori, has now lost three consecutive presidential runoffs.
In recognition of the need to broaden his support, Castillo has recently signaled a move to the political center. He has eschewed the flourishes of left-wing, nationalist rhetoric that made headlines during his presidential campaign and begun appointing a team of economic advisors more closely aligned with the country’s moderate left.
The challenge for Castillo will be how to balance those tradeoffs, which appear aimed at quelling investors’ fears and soothing an uneasy market, with the promises he made to his voters, says Jo-Marie Burt, Director of Latin American Studies at George Mason University.
“The party that brought Castillo to power wants radical political change,” said Burt. “Right now, he is moderating, not abandoning his platform, so that it is viable politically and technically. But he can’t abandon it altogether, or he might provoke street protests on the left.”
One sign of just how little wiggle room Castillo enjoys in congress came on Monday. After Castillo’s congressional allies committed a procedural error in submitting their nomination for leadership of Peru’s congress, the new legislature voted overwhelmingly to uphold a ban on lawmakers who are not members of recognized caucuses from proposing leadership coalitions.
The 79 votes that the opposition tallied in support of the ban offers a hint at the depth of congressional resistance to Castillo. Notably, it fell just eight votes shy of the 87-vote supermajority necessary for Peru’s 130-seat, unicameral Congress of the Republic to impeach the president.
To avert a worst-case scenario, Castillo will need to hold onto every one of the 37 congressional seats already in Perú Libre’s orbit, as well as another five from the party’s only certain congressional ally, Juntos por el Perú.
That precarious balancing act may be one reason why Castillo has affirmed his commitment to convene a constituent assembly to rewrite Peru’s market-friendly 1993 constitution, even as he has backed away from other controversial elements of Perú Libre’s platform, suggested Julio Carrión, Associate Professor of Political Science and International Relations at the University of Delaware.
Castillo is less radical than the party that he now heads, said Carrión. However, reforming Peru’s constitution, which was written and promulgated under the elder Fujimori, represents an important campaign promise for Castillo—and one that need not alarm the moderate opposition, said Carrión.
“Castillo has to make some moves regarding the constitution. He has a strong left party that wants to follow the Ecuadorean model for constitutional reform,” said Carrión, referencing the 2008 constitutional reform process spearheaded by Rafael Correa, former President of Ecuador. “But I don’t think he will go too far. There is a very clear consensus in Peru that people don’t want a radical economic change. What people do want is a better state, better education, better services.”
While Castillo will face significant pressure from the left to remain true to his campaign promises, the greater obstacle to his rule may emerge from the right.
In the nearly two months between the runoff and the formal transition of power on Wednesday, Fujimori and her allies waged a Trump-style disinformation campaign aimed at invalidating roughly 200,000 votes from the rural precincts that propelled Castillo to victory. At one point, retired military officers even issued open calls for a coup d’etat.
While those efforts have borne little fruit thus far, they have inflamed tensions within Peru, driving protesters and counter-protesters into the streets on a regular basis. Earlier this month, a mob of Fujimori supporters demanding a recount attacked the cars of two ministers in Peru’s outgoing administration—a troubling indication of the widespread skepticism surrounding Castillo’s narrow victory.
Even if the right has no clear roadmap for subverting Castillo’s government now that he has assumed office, it seems inevitable that they will jump at the first opportunity to oust him. That, more than any reform Castillo might seek to implement, could present the greatest danger for Peru’s democracy.
“Is this turning into a moment of serious confrontation?” asked Chirinos, the political scientist at the Universidad del Pacífico, in response to a question about the threat to Castillo from Peru’s right. “That’s a question I don’t have the answer to yet.”
John Sakellariadis is a writer and researcher covering technology and international politics. He has written for Slate, SupChina and TheRecord.media.