WOLA: Advocacy for Human Rights in the Americas

(AP Photo/Martin Mejia)

23 Jun 2021 | Commentary

After June 6 Elections, Peru’s Democracy Hangs in the Balance

On June 6, 2021, Peruvians voted for their country’s next president. With all votes counted, the National Office of Electoral Processes (ONPE) announced on June 15 that Pedro Castillo had prevailed over Keiko Fujimori, 50.125 percent to 49.875 percent—a narrow margin of 44,240 votes out of nearly 19 million ballots cast. The extremely close vote was the culmination of a deeply polarizing election campaign, with Castillo as a candidate of the left championing sweeping economic and political changes, and Fujimori an extreme conservative who promised to defend Peru’s free-market economic model.

Without offering any credible evidence, Keiko Fujimori has claimed fraud in an obvious effort to overturn the voting results. Peru’s electoral authorities are carefully examining the Fujimori campaign’s allegations of fraud; virtually all those reviewed to date have been dismissed, and the remaining challenges do not involve enough votes to change the outcome.

National and international election observers, including the OAS, have found no evidence of fraud. As all credible observers have made clear, the vote was clean, and observers have congratulated Peru’s electoral authorities for the quality of the process under circumstances complicated by COVID-19.

Significantly, after two weeks of near-silence, the U.S. State Department recently added its praise, commending “Peruvian authorities for safely administering another round of free, fair, accessible, and peaceful elections, even amid significant COVID-19 pandemic challenges. These recent elections are a model of democracy in the region. We support allowing electoral authorities time to process and publish the results in accordance with Peruvian law.”

Despite Fujimori’s criticisms, it is clear that Peru’s electoral institutions have performed fairly, efficiently and transparently in this electoral cycle. It is no small irony that these institutions had to be painstakingly rebuilt after having been politicized and co-opted in 1999-2000 as Alberto Fujimori—Keiko’s father—sought his third re-election in a process that international and domestic observers deemed fraudulent. Fujimori fled Peru just months after being sworn in as president for a constitutionally impermissible third term when videos emerged demonstrating his regime’s corruption. In 2009, Fujimori was convicted of crimes against humanity for authorizing death-squad killings and disappearances and sentenced to 25 years in prison; he was also convicted of numerous corruption charges.

Especially in view of the consensus among election observers that the voting was conducted with integrity and transparency, it appears obvious that Keiko Fujimori’s claims of fraud are baseless allegations meant to draw out the process of formally declaring a winner, convince Fujimori’s voters that the election was stolen, generate a climate of uncertainty and fear, and ultimately annul the election or reverse the outcome. Blocking Castillo from becoming president would constitute a direct attack on the fundamental right of Peruvians to choose their leaders through free and fair democratic elections.

A losing candidate attempting to steal an election by asserting fraud without any evidence may sound all too familiar. In the aftermath of the November 2020 U.S. elections, Donald Trump and his supporters, pushing a similar, baseless narrative of elections fraud, fomented conflict and a violent, deadly insurrection. Trump’s “big lie” did not succeed in preventing the winning candidate, Joe Biden, from being sworn in as president. But millions of U.S. citizens bought into Trump’s narrative of fraud and do not consider Biden to be the country’s legitimate president.

Peru recovered its democracy in 2000, after two decades of political violence and authoritarian rule. Since then, Peruvian democracy has weathered numerous storms. But this time, there are real concerns about whether its institutions are strong enough to withstand the mendacious assault being carried out by Fujimori and her supporters.

Even though Fujimori’s allegations of fraud are fabrications, the risk they pose to Peruvian democracy and the rule of law is very real. The danger to Peru’s democracy is exacerbated by the grotesquely irresponsible role being played by Peru’s mainstream media, giving full play to Fujimori’s big lie, pushing the narrative of fraud and generating a climate of tension and conflict. Troublingly, this false, dangerous narrative has been amplified by well-known figures such as Nobel laureate (and former presidential candidate) Mario Vargas Llosa. While Vargas Llosa actively campaigned against Keiko Fujimori in 2011 and 2016, this time around he backed her because he viewed her rival to be a dangerous radical who imperiled Peru’s free-market economy. In his Sunday column for El País, he went beyond merely backing one candidate over the other, recklessly mounting a full-throated defense of Fujimori’s big lie.

Adding to the sense of menace, retired Peruvian military officials have issued two separate letters calling on the Peruvian Armed Forces to intervene should Castillo be proclaimed president-elect. The second letter, bearing the names of some 1,300 former military officials, was so egregious that President Francisco Sagasti convened a press conference denouncing it as an act of sedition against Peruvian democracy.

Keiko Fujimori has already been on the losing end of two previous presidential elections, in 2011 and 2016. She never formally acknowledged her defeat in 2016—also by a narrow margin of 41,000 votes—and subsequently used her party’s super-majority in Congress to generate a climate of ungovernability. Just one indicator: Peru had four presidents between 2018 and 2020, two of whom were removed from office by Congress, and one who was forced out after several days of protests, including the deaths of two young Peruvian men.

Now Fujimori is again refusing to acknowledge the reality that she has lost, and is using both traditional and social media to spread allegations of fraud, in order to undermine the results of the election. Not coincidentally, Fujimori faces the possibility of serious jail time on charges of money laundering, leading a criminal organization, and obstruction of justice, and remains vulnerable to prosecution unless she can gain the immunity that becoming president would confer.

The claims of fraud seek to deny the presidency to Castillo, a campesino, school teacher and trade unionist from rural Cajamarca; they play on racist and classist tropes. Ahead of the June 6 voting, Fujimori and her allies launched a fierce red-baiting campaign that portrayed Castillo as a dangerous communist, and even a Shining Path militant. This blatant manipulation of old fears about political violence, intended to discredit Castillo wholesale, has been widely echoed in the mainstream media. Now, it is also being deployed as an argument to justify the overturning of the election results should Castillo be proclaimed the winner. Elite hysteria over a Castillo victory has intersected with Fujimori’s urgent need to win the presidency to avoid prison.

As the review of the final ballot challenges comes to an end, it seems clear that Castillo has won a fair vote, and should be sworn in as Peru’s next president on July 28. But if Fujimori has her way, she and her party will find a way to overturn the election and prevent Castillo from assuming office. This is the moment for democratic leaders throughout the world to stand up to defend the integrity of the electoral process, and accept the judgement of the majority of voters, after competent electoral authorities have certified the outcome. If Fujimori succeeds in subverting Peru’s elections, the consequences would be dire—not just for Peru, but for all of the region’s democracies.