Amid massive social and political upheavals, the decay of the institutions of bourgeois democracy in the face of calls for a coup, all while a third wave of COVID threatens the country, Peru is facing a serious crisis with no clear resolution, just in time for the country’s 200th anniversary of its establishment as an independent republic.
By Federico Romero, Socialist Workers’ Party (PST) – Peru, translated by Carlos Jara
The crisis has taken on an electoral form because, following the narrow victory of the left candidate Pedro Castillo, the bourgeoisie and its right wing representatives are calling for a recount in an attempt to steal votes away from Castillo and scrounge up a victory for their candidate, Keiko Fujimori. While the final result is supposed to be announced by the electoral tribunal, the social polarization caused by the erosion of confidence in state institutions is causing the crisis to spill out into the streets, where significant amounts of people on both sides have rallied. Regardless of what the ultimate outcome will be, the crisis is leading to a sharpening of the class struggle, similar to what we have seen across large swathes of the rest of Latin America.
Under more normal circumstances, the electoral tribunal would have already named Pedro Castillo the winner of the election (as in 2016, when Keiko Fujimori lost the election by a similar margin). But this is not a normal election, although it may have appeared that way at first. While the election season started quietly enough, as it proceeded, internal contradictions of class and oppression within Peru began to boil over, heated by the flame of not only 30 years of neoliberalism, but 200 years of a flawed republic, set to broil by the pandemic.
The current conflict is not a sign of a fundamental shift in the balance of power between classes, as was the case for the election of Evo Morales in Bolivia, entering the Palacio Quemado following an intense, broad revolutionary process that empowered the masses to take the streets and bring down bourgeois governments in 2003 and 2005, and which allowed for the partial recuperation of the country’s gas reserves and other ambitious political aspirations. The level of class struggle in Peru has yet to reach such heights. Support for Castillo is the result of the masses’ search for an electoral solution to the country’s problems; Castillo himself doesn’t hold a candle to Morales, and his party, Perú Libre (Free Peru) is a fragile, Castro-Chavista organization, unable to lead a political transformation from within the government. For these reasons, the bourgeoisie is relying on tactics to delay and steal the election out from under Castillo, or at least to delegitimize it, and mobilizations related to this have lasted over fifteen days, motivating both important protests against the status quo, but also protests in support of Fujimori led by the bourgeoisie.
Nevertheless, there is still a revolutionary mood among the masses, and this could rapidly lead to a new situation. The evolution of this process will depend on how the crisis morphs, based on the confrontations and the agreements made over the days to come. If Fujimori manages to force herself on the Peruvian people, popular struggle is likely to explode. If Castillo wins the day, relative calm is likely to return. But there are other possibilities as well: if the process is delayed beyond July 28th, the people may lose their patience, and it is also possible for the electoral process to be entirely nullified. For now, at the orders of the electoral institutions and Perú Libre as well, the struggle is being limited to the terrain of legal negotiations with the bourgeoisie. Castillo is hoping to win their confidence, while also applying some pressure through street protests, but is limiting the scope of struggle. At the same time, the right wing of the bourgeoisie is trying to accelerate contradictions and create the conditions for a coup.
How did we get here?
The elections were originally a product of crisis, as the establishment parties found themselves discredited in the eyes of the public, as did the government itself. 30% of the population did not vote in the first round of the elections, and 17% submitted blank or voided protest votes. Consequently, the candidates to proceed to the second round of the election represented two tiny minority parties, together winning less than 30% of the vote. The fact that these two options represented polar opposite ends of Peruvian electoral politics created the conditions for polarization in the second round.
Keiko Fujimori is criticized for her father’s corrupt dictatorship, for her obstructionist behavior during the last administration, and for corruption charges unearthed by the Lava Jato investigation (Operation Car Wash), which also implicated Peru’s four most recent ex-presidents and an endless list of other ex-officials. Consequently, more than 70% of voters explicitly opposed her, but the 11% in favor were enough to lead her to the second round. Pedro Castillo, a rural teacher with a peasant background, led a campaign with a message of change for the peasantry of Peru, who have been hardest hit by the pandemic, and consequently won 15% of the vote. These two camps emerged as an expression of society’s polarization: on one hand, the middle classes pivoted towards the far-right, and working class layers pivoted to the far-left, while the political center, represented by the current government and the “Together for Peru” (JP) list, saw its support collapse.
Thus, the second round would be decided by the two-thirds of the population that did not vote for either of the frontrunners in the first round, many of whom are extremely opposed to central policies of both candidates, and who find themselves forced to support a lesser evil based on their economic perspectives: a choice between continuity (Fujimori), or change (Castillo)
But this dynamic, while central, has not been the only factor in play, as the election was plagued by many other problems, characterized by an underhanded and polarizing campaign strategy adopted by the Fujimorist faction.
The broader context
The second round of the election has painted a picture of a country that is split socially and geographically. The Andes mountain region, predominantly agricultural and one of the poorest regions of the country, gave a solid vote in favor of Castillo; Lima (the capital), the north coast, and Ica, the regions most fully integrated into modern capitalist enterprise, provided a majority vote for Fujimori. This divisions are simply the resurfacing of historical problems that were first established in Peru’s colonial era, which remain unresolved after 200 years of republic and aggravated by 30 years of neoliberalism. Today, they demonstrate that Peru is a divided nation governed by an ineffective system.
In Peru’s historical tradition, the wealthy class traces its origin to a handful of Spanish conquistadors, which evolved into a creole elite, living in enclaves in the urban city centers, terrified of the indigenous masses that they exploited and enslaved, which they considered to be an “inferior race”; these indigenous people, well aware of their numerical advantage, built a collective identity through their struggle against the white urban population. The forcible entry of Peru into the global capitalist economy and its situation as a country on the periphery of capitalist development led to the development of a country with a deformed economy, backwards and dependent on foreign capital. Since the colonial era, Peru has exported gold, silver and other minerals, always controlled by foreign interests, and since then has also developed agricultural exports along its coastline. These two industries are the pillars upon which the ruling class builds its wealth and power, while exploiting and marginalizing the majority fo the country’s population. The Andes mountain range, wild and rough, were also conquered by landlords, but due to the poor quality of the land, instead of establishing capitalist economic exploitation, they instead put into place a system of economic relations more similar to feudal production quotas, which remained in place as the country passed from being a Spanish colony into an independent republic. Even after the peasants won their right to the land following massive struggles, the lack of development and the effective abandonment of the region by the Peruvian state, which failed to provide even basic services to this region, has created a situation where 200 years later this region is still the poorest in the country. The contradictions between the poor rural mountains and the rich urban centers have only been sharpened by the passage of time: not just in the growing gap between the lifestyles of the urban rich and rural poor, but also within the rural regions themselves, as they are now the worksites for massive mining operations which extract riches from out of the mountains for the benefit of the ruling class.
It is in this historical context that the battle lines between classes are drawn today. Neoliberal reforms stabilized the economy, particularly in the last 20 years, causing it to grow at rates that rivaled even China, but in a highly unequal fashion, leading to the growth of social inequality. Recently, as neoliberal reforms lost steam, a social crisis began to grow within the country, giving way to general destabilization as the COVID pandemic swept the country.
The pandemic not only directly hurt workers and the poor, but also demonstrated the extreme fragility of the neoliberal model on a global scale. Peru has the highest number of COVID deaths per capita thanks to a massive shortage of hospitals, medicines, doctors, and even oxygen. In Lima, the economic heart of the country, half of the working population lost their jobs, and the other half have lost many of their rights, including significant cuts to their salaries. Thousands have had to leave the capital back to their home towns in order to survive. In a country where 75% of the economy is informal, the vast majority of small businesses have gone bankrupt. In the mountains and wilderness there is no internet reception or computer infrastructure, leading to a lack of access to virtual school as in-person instruction was put on hold for the pandemic. While all of this misery has been happening, the country’s biggest exploiters were “saved” by a massive stimulus package. With the exception of a few days where they were required to close down, Peruvian industry has not stopped production throughout the pandemic, treating its workforce as little more than slaves while the business owners hoarded medical supplies to protect themselves from COVID. All of these results were the product of a clear and consistent set of class-based policies applied and led by the state (which on top of this is riddled by corruption controversies), which has led the people of Peru to realize that while they mourn their dead, they need to fight for their rights to survive.
The first incident of social upheaval was the great rebellion of November 14th 2020, which defeated a congressional attempt to swear in a new corrupt government, and through a powerful farmworkers’ strike, which led to the striking of a law symbolizing the effective legalization of slavery in Peru. These moments of resistance, nevertheless, did not produce a lasting change in the balance of class forces thanks to their betrayal by reformist leaders, who worked together with the bourgeoisie to reroute popular outrage into electoral campaigning for their favored candidate, Verónika Mendoza.
The results of April 11 and June 6 (the two rounds of voting) can be understood in this context.
What is causing the polarization?
It is in this general context that the actual polarization took place. One aspect of the polarization that has helped Castillo is Fujimori’s identification not only with the ruling classes, but with their most extreme elements, corrupt officials, proud abusers of human rights, and overbearing reactionaries, political stances that Fujimori has embraced in her campaign without mincing words. Moreover, her alignment with the continuation of the current economic regime that only benefits the rich, law and order rhetoric, and her support for the political impunity of corrupt officials have drawn the hatred of the masses. Her strategy has thus been to attempt to bad mouth her opponent Castillo, denouncing him as well as his supporters as “communist” and a “terrorist”, applying these labels to everyone from the multitude of left groups supporting him, to even liberals and functionaries of the state itself that have attempted to remain neutral throughout the election. Their goal has been to try to paint Fujimori as the only alternative, and in doing so succeeded in winning the support of nearly half the country.
Support for this campaign has been lockstep across the major media platforms, and is also visible across the massive billboards on the streets of Lima, supported by spokespeople ranging from old liberals in government and their parties (such as the APRA, PPC, half of the AP and “personalities” like the MVLL), to new groups on the far right, which have attempted to mobilize the middle classes with the misleading battlecry of “defend democracy”. It is a movement that is so profoundly reactionary that it has raised slogans of murdering “the communists” and has called on the military to conduct a coup in the event that Castillo wins the election.
This aggressive, divisive, and underhanded campaign to twist the public’s opinion, which understands its base to be the middle classes and which seeks to intimidate or confuse the rest of the population, is nevertheless unable to hide that it represents the interests of the most powerful, of the multinational corporations that strangle our economy and the 17 richest families in Peru, coddling their fear of change.
All of this has infuriated the majority of workers, peasants and other poor people, who have taken Castillo’s side, as well as a layer of petit bourgeois liberals who are not persuaded by the far-right’s scaremongering.
Perú Libre (Free Peru) is a small, regional Castro-Chavista organization which has governed the Junín region for two electoral cycles, and which associated itself with an important political current which supposedly has connections to the MOVADEF (the political front of the Shining Path guerrilla group). The bourgeoisie is naturally opposed to its political program, as they will refuse to accept any changes, let alone calls for nationalization of extractive industries and constitutional reform. Nevertheless, they are also aware that Perú Libre has no chance of making good on these campaign promises due to a balance of power that is tilted against them, which includes the bourgeoisie’s solid control over the main factions in Peru’s Congress, its military, the CONFIEP (a powerful coalition of business interests), and their control over Peru’s laws.
As far as MOVADEF is concerned, even if the rumors regarding connections to Perú Libre are true, in the 30 years since Abimael Guzmán’s followers renounced armed struggle and the entirety of their political program, they have focused on merely calling for peace treaties to integrate themselves with the political system in order to win pardons for their imprisoned comrades, or at least better treatment for them. Despite that, the Peruvian bourgeoisie is so reactionary that instead of making good on the reconciliation demanded by the Truth and Reconciliation Committee that ended the war between the Peruvian state and the Shining Path, they continue to scaremonger and blame the entirety of the conflict on the Shining Path, caricaturing them as a gang of bloodthirsty terrorists and totally decontextualizing the conflict from both the crises that gave birth to it and the government’s genocidal tactics in the conflict, responsible for half of the 80,000 innocent victims killed. In the electoral campaign, the bourgeoisie has brought the Shining Path back as a boogeyman, agitating the population towards conflict.
Facing these massive pressures, Perú Libre and Castillo have put all of their inconsistencies and limitations on display, leading to successive pivots and adjustments to their political program. For example, on top of JP, layers of the “democrat” petit-bourgeoisie and bourgeoisie (Vizcarra, Partido Morado) have also tried to join the Castillo bandwagon in order to steer it their way. They have been aided in this effort by the Catholic Church (the oldest party of the bourgeoisie) and other institutions which forced Castillo to sign a statement promising to recognize “democracy, its institutions, and its economic model”. In parallel, another campaign comprising a variety of diverse supporters have attempted to distance Castillo from Perú Libre and Cerrón, painting these latter two as the source of all problems. Although there is very little democracy involved in any of this, it appears that Perú Libre has won the elections with its chosen policy platform and has won the right to govern.
In this way, even before the second round of the elections, Perú Libre and Castillo signed an agreement with JP to adopt a new political platform, which they have dubbed “The Bicentennial Plan”, which has provided Castillo’s campaign with the equipment, manpower, and organic support of the institutional Peruvian left. Following this agreement, Perú Libre and Castillo have become moderates: they have reduced their platform to simply demanding vague “change” within the confines of the existing political system in order to appease the bourgeoisie. At the same time, the agreement appears to set the stage for Castillo to appoint a center-left government with Verónika Mendoza at its head, all while promising to appease the markets by promising high and low that they will not touch a single hair on the heads of businesses’ interests. Pedro Francke, an economist widely recognized by the bourgeoisie as a “moderate” and an official spokesperson for the Castillo platform said “It appears that there is a clear economic law that economic growth leads to more investment, more production and more employment…For me private investment is a very important tool for generating wealth and employment” (El Comercio, June 19, 2021). In other words, they support the continuation of the current political model: private investment is king, and the government must take all actions necessary to protect it and lavish it with concessions, the exact same policy that has been followed from Alberto Fujimori through to today’s government.
Nonetheless, the bourgeois faction that has aligned itself with Fujimori does not believe any of the above, and promotes the total myth that Castillo is a wolf in sheep’s clothing looking to undermine capitalism. Of course, the path that Pedro Castillo and Perú Libre, pressured by their many inconsistencies and contradictions, has yet to be set in stone. But it is clear that they have made a concrete step towards forming a government that dresses itself up as leftist, but only according so long as it doesn’t offend the tastes of the bourgeoisie.
The plan to derail the vote
In this context, the bourgeoisie seems ready to accept a government headed by Castillo in order to avoid opening the doors to a conflict that could turn the country into a living hell. But it is clear that they are intent on playing with fire up until the last minute, to see if an opportunity arises to seize power for Fujimori, or at least to delegitimize and weaken Castillo’s government, which would help them further bring his government under their heel, or possibly to even invalidate the election results. These possibilities are being developed out in the open as the various factions of the bourgeoisie engage in open struggle against each other.
With these goals in mind, how is the bourgeoisie building its plans?
History shows that liberal democracy is bourgeois democracy; the rights granted by this system of government exist only in theory, and are only respected in practice when people fight for them. Within this context, taking advantage of privileges accorded to it by this “democracy”, Fujimori’s allies have accused Castillo of electoral fraud, and are demanding audits of the voting system.
Facing these accusations, even Perú Libre, which is honor-bound to respect “democracy”, has given support for an audit. But this audit is a farce, as there is zero possibility that the rival parties will come to agreement regarding the proceedings, nor will the electoral tribunal be able to apply a “fair” hearing that will satisfy both sides. The “democrats”, who truly believe that it is best to entertain the demands for an audit in order to produce a transparent, legitimate final result, regardless of which candidate wins out, and that we need to just patiently wait in our homes until a winner is declared, are engaging in wishful thinking while reality has other plans.
What is justice? Is it justice to strike a result because it has been denounced as fraudulent without any evidence? To throw out a candidate’s victory because it does not correspond to the average participation rates in their district, or because it differs from its results in the first round? Various statistical studies have been provided: some say that there were many irregularities, others say that there were few, but those that existed were important. But these statistical studies are only a tool, and do not definitively establish the authenticity or lack thereof of the voting results. For these reasons, the plan of action proposed by Fujimori and her supporters is no more than an attempt to steal the vote.
The ultimate result, whichever way it goes, will be determined by the body in charge of elections, and its decision will be a political one. This is something that both sides of the issue are well-aware of, and for that reason they have called on their supporters (somewhat timidly, in the case of Perú Libre) to take to the streets.
Thus, while Perú Libre is sitting down to play the game of electoral politics, Fujimori is fighting on two fronts: on one side, they are trying to twist the electoral results in favor of Fujimori and are trying to apply pressure on the electoral tribunal using both popular demonstrations and other political operatives, on the other hand they are also trying to discredit the electoral commission, question its independence, and call for a coup, and in this sense they are pushing as hard as they possibly can, right up until July 28th when a final decision is expected.
It is a fact that Castillo won the elections, albeit by a thin margin, confirmed both by exit polling and by the Peruvian National Office of Electoral Processes (ONPE). But beyond the formal victory, it is a fact that the majority of the country, particularly the impoverished people living in the country’s interior that uniformly supported him, are now feeling a deep sense of impending betrayal as they watch Fujimori and her allies try to once more steal away their hopes and dreams. Nothing could be more democratic than to recognize the result, particularly after a completely unfair, antidemocratic election where the full weight of the bourgeoisie, its media companies and its other resources were put in service of Fujimori against Castillo.
The solution is to plan and execute a general strike
With these considerations in mind, the electoral tribunal could have resolved everything, put an end to the inquiries, and recognized Castillo’s victory, and it would have only faced criticism from the right wing. This is a demand that should have been raised alongside the call for mass protests. But it has not materialized, because of the role played by the bourgeois opposition and the middle classes which hope to negotiate with Perú Libre and JP.
Mobilizations began from the moment that it became clear that Fujimori was not going to accept the result of the vote. But over the past fifteen days, the Fujimori offensive has grown, offsetting the protests in favor of Castillo and raising fears that Fujimori could make good on her plans.
That is why, beyond mobilizations that defend the vote result, we need to meet the current crisis with an indefinite general strike to put a definitive end to the bourgeois and Fujimorist plans, and which would force the country to respect the will of the majority. There is no alternative.
The CGTP is calling for a national strike which shows no signs of being sufficiently broad, nor is it even a guarantee that it will occur, and which is being proposed purely to support its favored policy of compromise. The union’s base is ready to fight, especially in the country’s interior, but this attitude has yet to diffuse across the rest of the working class, and critically, it has failed to penetrate the urban and mining proletariat that form the heart of the country’s economy, a failure due largely to their lack of trust in the CGTP.
The fight for an indefinite strike, its preparation and its execution, require the decisive intervention of the vanguard of the working class, which must understand the urgency of the moment to embark on an intense campaign of outreach and coordination with the rank and file workers of Peru, to push for the construction of strike committees and representatives for each and every worksite. We need to do this not just to defend the people’s will, but to also fight on to win the changes that we want to see, such as the nationalization of extractive industries, the expropriation of big capitalist conglomerates, the establishment of a constituent assembly, and a second agrarian reform to address the demands and needs of the workers and peasants.
All of this is possible. We just need to take the first steps in this direction, abandoning the illusions of center-left compromises in favor of the construction of a true revolutionary alternative that sets the working class in motion to fight for a Workers’ Popular Government.
The original Spanish version of this article can be found here.