Seven out of ten Peruvians did not vote for either Pedro Castillo or Keiko Fujimori in the presidential election held on April 11. Many candidates attended that first round and at least six were in a “technical tie” according to what the pre-electoral polls counted. Three weeks before the race, a poll gave Castillo only 3% of the intention to vote.
It is not the first time in Peru that a total outsider has burst into the system with force. Twenty-two years ago the almost unknown rector of an agrarian university had tried, without success, to be a councilor of Lima, and six months later he surprised by going to the second round to compete against Mario Vargas Llosa. A virtual stranger became president, with support concentrated in Lima’s poor neighborhoods and rural areas, leveraged on the evangelical church and a message that was riding the wave of anti-politics and against the status quo. In that sense, the Castle of today is much more like the Alberto Fujimori of 1990 than Keiko herself. Since then, Peru has voted with great volatility and always with last minute changes.
When Fujimori won his first election, he did so with a party outside the system: Cambio 90. A short time later, the president-elect copied all the state institutions and became a dictator.
The emergence of new parties in electoral years became the pattern of subsequent years from the new century. In total, some twenty new political-electoral platforms in the first two decades of the 21st century, thus characterizing the enormous fragmentation and political instability of the Andean country. Instability that includes the deposition of three leaders by the national parliament. The first of them, in 2000, ousted Fujimori from power and returned Peru to the path of democracy, but the last two exacerbated instability (Kuczynski in 2017 and Vizcarra in 2020).
The political fragmentation of the country reached its climax in 2021 and drew the parliament that the president who is ultimately victorious will have to deal with. Eleven political factions will make up the new Congress: a slim majority of Castillo’s party would have only 28 of the 130 seats, while Keiko’s party, Popular Force, only 16 seats. The common factor of the president who finally comes to power will be lacking a solid party to support the government and dealing with a highly fragmented parliament.
No more poor in a rich country
In his campaign, Pedro Castillo managed to establish a powerful idea: “No more poor in a rich country.” In terms of per capita product, Peru has barely a third that of Panama or a quarter of that of Spain, and the slogan is based on a lie. However, Peruvian wealth is part of a very powerful historical account that even has colonial overtones that are evoked in expressions such as “Vale un Perú!”
Castillo appeals to this widespread conviction about the wealth of Peru and transmits the idea of redistributive equity that is part of the heart of the traditional proposals of the primitive left. “If Peru is a rich country and I am poor, it is because someone steals it” is the simple and powerful equation of the message, which worked so well for Hugo Chávez in Venezuela in 1998.
Xenophobic traits and class hatred
Castillo also revealed xenophobic traits and class hatred, in a very dangerous combination of electoral populism, which was made visible by Keiko Fujimori in an appeal to the “lesser evil.” In the short campaign between the first and second rounds, Keiko surpassed the initial 20 points that separated her from Castillo.
Although 68% of Peruvian voters rejected both Keiko and Castillo in the April 11 election, the arid contest towards the second round led the country to an extremely polarized electoral situation, with less than half a percentage point of difference in the one that the final result could even take weeks to settle.
It is not uncommon for an electoral dilemma to be resolved by choosing the “lesser evil.” As so often happens in politics, we do not choose the best in absolute terms, but only the best from what is available, which often ends up being what we think is least bad.
As in that famous 1964 North American contest in which Lyndon Johnson ran for the presidency against Republican Barry Goldwater and the voter was forced to choose between “lesser of two evils” (the less bad of two devils), the vote-against was very greater activator than the vote-in-favor in Peru 2021.
And so the two Peruvians faced each other in their twin hatreds on Election Sunday: in the dilemma communism versus freedom in the slogans wielded by Fujimori, or redistribution against corruption in those of Castillo. But also in the cleavages of recent wounds: antifujimoristas against antisenderistas. Or in an already historical geographical gap: Lima in favor of Keiko, against the regions in favor of Castillo. Without forgetting a new electoral gap, that of gender: men with Pedro against women with Fujimori.
An artificial polarization
However, this polarization is artificial. Peru is not a politically polarized country and the results of the first round are evidence. Polarization as an ideological distance between candidates, parties and voters does not exist as such in Peru. It has been polarized at the convenience of political actors and this entails obvious risks. The world is vast and complex, when reality is reduced to two options (yes or no, good or bad, them or us), a clear link develops between polarization, extremism and populism.
If we approach the measurement of polarization through the ideological self-positioning of the voters, we see that the Peruvian curve behaves very similarly to that of other Latin American societies, with a large majority of the population positioned in the ideological center. The closer the mean is to the number five, the more focused that society will be on the left-right ideological dimension. Alternatively, closer to 1 would imply that the country as a whole is oriented more to the left, and closer to 10 would suggest a greater ideological proximity, on average, to the right.
Peruvian society must gather its moral and democratic reserves to get out of this complicated trance. It already did it once two decades ago when it ended the Fujimori dictatorship.
One way to do this is by trying to prevent what happened from happening again. The possible way would be by changing the electoral voting system, assuming the “supplementary voting” method. If no candidate gets more than 50% of the first choice votes, all but the top 2 candidates are eliminated. And the votes they have obtained are added as a second option.
It is the method used in British cities. The system may sound a bit more complex to understand, but very easy to implement, having automated or semi-automated counting methods. As a great advantage, it saves the election of the second round and the artificial polarization of society.
It would be a way to prevent the lesser evil from becoming greater.
This article has been published in The Conversation