In Peru’s presidential election, the most popular choice is no one

By Mitra Taj

Vicenta Escobar, 62, sells fruit from a stand on the streets in Peru’s capital, Lima. In every presidential election over the past four decades, she has chosen a candidate in whom she believed, in the hope that he or she would deliver change.

But not this time. Yes, she planned to arrive at her polling station Sunday to vote — as is required by Peruvian law — but she said she would cast her ballot without making a mark.

“I’m planning on leaving it blank,” she said Thursday afternoon. She was fed up, she said, with “all the lies and robberies.”

Peruvians voted Sunday at a moment many are calling one of the lowest points in the country’s young democracy. Eighteen candidates are on the ballot, but about 15% of voters are expected to cast a blank vote, according to several recent polls, and no candidate has been able to garner much more than 10% support. The leading two candidates will advance to a runoff if no one captures more than half the vote.

The election follows a tumultuous five-year period in which the country cycled through four presidents and two Congresses, and it comes amid growing frustration over corruption, the pandemic and a political system that many say has served the interests of corporations and officials — but not of regular people.

Whoever is sworn in later this year is likely to have the weakest mandate of any elected president in recent history, and will be forced to deal with dual economic and health crises likely to shape the country for years to come.

Peru has one of the highest coronavirus death rates in the world, and daily deaths climbed to new highs this month as the Brazilian variant of the virus spread through the country. Many COVID patients have died amid lack of access to oxygen or ventilators, working-class families are struggling to secure enough food, and school closures have pushed children into the labor force.

The economy shrank 12% last year in the country’s worst recession in three decades — the second-worst downturn in Latin America, after Venezuela’s.

Voters interviewed this month in Lima appeared to coalesce around their shared frustration with the system.

“We used to trust our leaders somewhat. But now no one believes any of them,” said Teresa Vásquez, 49, a housekeeper.

Vásquez had supported one of the recent presidents, Martín Vizcarra, even as legislators impeached him amid corruption charges.

Then she learned he had been secretly vaccinated last year with extra doses from a clinical trial in Peru that researchers distributed among political elites.

This year, she narrowed her options to two candidates who seemed clean.

“It’s the same with my whole family,” she said. “No one knows who to trust.”

Opinion polls released before Sunday’s vote showed that any two of half a dozen candidates might move on to a likely June runoff.

Among the candidates pulling in about 10% of the vote in recent polls are Pedro Castillo, a socially conservative union activist who has surged in the last week on promises to invest heavily in health care and education, and Keiko Fujimori, a right-wing opposition leader and the daughter of former authoritarian President Alberto Fujimori, who has said she would end COVID lockdowns and crack down on crime with an “iron fist.”

This year’s election coincides with the 200th anniversary of Peru’s independence. But instead of celebrating, many Peruvians are questioning the validity of their democracy and their free-market economic model.

Even before the pandemic threw the country into disarray, support for democracy in Peru had slipped to one of the lowest levels in the region, according to a 2018-19 survey by the Latin American Public Opinion Project, with the military seen as the most trustworthy institution.

Since the last general election produced a divided government five years ago, Peru has seen constant clashes between the legislative and executive branches, as opposition lawmakers have sought to impeach two presidents and Vizcarra dissolved Congress, calling new legislative elections to push through reforms.

Three former presidents have spent time in jail during bribery investigations, including one candidate in this year’s election; a fourth killed himself to avoid arrest; and a fifth, Vizcarra, one of the most popular recent leaders, was impeached in November.

His replacement, who lasted less than a week in office, is under investigation in connection with the fatal shootings of two young men at protests, which led to his resignation.

One reason for the country’s endemic corruption is that political parties often barter their loyalties to presidential candidates in backroom deals, and are often captive to special interests.

“Political parties are no longer a vehicle for representation of the citizenry,” said Adriana Urrutia, a political scientist who leads the pro-democracy organization Transparencia. “There are parties in the current Parliament that represent the interests of private universities facing penalties for failing to fulfill minimum requirements. There are parties that represent the interests of illegal economies, like illegal logging and illegal mining.”

Some candidates are tailoring their messages to appeal to the growing skepticism about democracy.

Castillo has promised to replace the Constitutional Tribunal with a court elected “by popular mandate” and said he would dissolve Congress if it blocked a proposal to replace the Constitution. Rafael López Aliaga, a businessman and a member of the ultraconservative Catholic group Opus Dei, has said Peru must stop a leftist “dictatorship” from consolidating power and has promised to jail corrupt officials for life.

Fujimori has abandoned efforts to moderate her platform in her third presidential bid. She has promised to pardon her father, who is serving a sentence for human rights abuses and graft.

The constant political turmoil has analysts worried for the country’s future.

“I think the scenario that’s coming is really frightening,” said Patricia Zárate, lead researcher for the Institute of Peruvian Studies, a polling organization. “Congress knows they can impeach the president easily and it’s also easy for the president to close Congress. Now it will be easier to do again. It’s dispiriting.”

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