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20 Jul 2021 | Commentary

Peru Has a New President, But Fujimori’s Election Lie Imperils Democracy

After six weeks of grueling uncertainty, Peru at last has a president-elect. Last night, six weeks after Peru’s June 6 closely contested second-round presidential elections, the National Elections Boards (JNE) certified the results and proclaimed rural school teacher and farmer Pedro Castillo Peru’s next president. Castillo, a socially conservative leftist, won the vote with 50.12 percent of the vote, defeating the conservative Keiko Fujimori’s 49.87 percent.

Castillo declared winner but Fujimori reasserts false claims of fraud

The proclamation ceremony, broadcast live over Zoom, included the four members of the JNE, which came under intense scrutiny after Fujimori and her allies claimed that the elections were fraudulent, claims that were evaluated and rejected as baseless. Also attending were the head of the Organization of American States (OAS) elections observation team, whose certification of the elections contributed to undermining Fujimori’s false narrative of fraud. In a small corner on the Zoom screen was Castillo himself, donning his now-familiar wide-brimmed straw hat. The president-elect takes office on July 28, 2021, the bicentenary of Peru’s independence from Spanish rule.

Following the proclamation, President-elect Castillo gave a brief speech to thousands of his followers from the balcony of the Lima headquarters of his party, Peru Libre. He urged all Peruvians to join him to build “a more inclusive, just, free Peru, without discrimination.” He promised that he would pursue policies that maintained economic stability while also pursuing “true economic development.” He said he would respect the Constitution under which he was elected “until the people decide otherwise,” in allusion to his proposal to convene a constituent assembly to write a new constitution. Castillo thanked those who defended the votes of Peru’s rural and Indigenous population, in reference to Fujimori’s attempt to disqualify those votes and overturn the election results. He also called on Keiko Fujimori to work with him to unify the country.

That is unlikely to happen. Upon learning that the JNE was planning to officially proclaim Castillo president, Fujimori held a press conference in which she stated that she accepted the election results “as mandated by the law.” But in the same breath, she asserted that the “truth” about election fraud will be revealed and called Castillo’s presidency illegitimate. She also promised to continue to lead “the grand challenge of stopping communism in Peru.”

Fujimori did not say anything about the fact that now that her loss is official, prosecutors are likely to seek a date to initiate the trial against her, in which she faces charges of money laundering, leading a criminal organization, and obstruction of justice. She faces a possible prison term of 31 years. Her husband, U.S.-born Mark Vito, also faces criminal charges for corruption.

Fujimori’s election lies debunked

The uncertainty and tensions of the past six weeks have left a deep mark on Peruvian society. Peru’s electoral institutions in fact performed admirably in holding free and fair elections, and have won ample praise for transparency, efficiency and integrity of the process—in a context made even more challenging by the COVID-19 pandemic. But that reality has not stopped Fujimori and her supporters from insisting that the election was stolen, making for a tumultuous transition of power and posing serious challenges for Peru’s democracy.

On June 15, nearly ten days after the second-round election, the National Office of Electoral Processes (ONPE) finalized counting the votes, showing Castillo narrowly defeating third-time presidential candidate Keiko Fujimori by just 44,000 votes. Even before the vote count was completed, Fujimori—backed by the Lima elite and the mainstream media—cried fraud.

She deployed a team of lawyers to challenge the validity of tens of thousands of ballots cast, especially in rural areas, which went overwhelmingly for Castillo. This, despite the fact that the OAS and other international and national elections observers certified that the vote was clean.

Keiko and her allies revived campaign narratives insisting that a Castillo presidency would bring disaster to Peru. They floated different alternative scenarios. One proposal involved preventing Castillo’s proclamation by July 28, so the president of Congress would be named interim president. Another scenario was to call for nullification of the election results and convening new elections. Conservative members of Congress sought, but ultimately failed, to name new magistrates to the Constitutional Tribunal who would presumably be more amenable to such a proposal should it come before them. Others—including a group of retired military officers, two of whom were elected to Congress—even advocated a military coup.

Over the course of several weeks, the JNE reviewed each fraud claim and rejected virtually all of them, debunking Fujimori’s narrative of fraud and clearing the way for the proclamation of Pedro Castillo as president-elect. In response, on July 16, Fujimori’s team of lawyers filed a new round of appeals that lacked merit and were obviously meant to further delay the certification of the election results.

On Monday, July 19, the JNE announced that all appeals had been resolved and that it would certify the results that evening. While this culmination of the JNE’s painstaking process is positive news for Peru’s democracy, it means that Castillo has just a week to prepare his transition team and name his cabinet members. This truncated transition process, in the midst of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, is the direct result of Keiko Fujimori’s refusal to accept her third defeat to reach the presidency.

The drawn out process caused by Fujimori’s big lie of electoral fraud has contributed to undermining confidence in Peru’s electoral institutions and the legitimacy of the Castillo presidency. The narrative of fraud, which has been laced with racist invectives and plenty of redbaiting, has also contributed to the radicalization of Fujimori’s followers, who have engaged in “doxing” of elections authorities, street protests, and violent attacks against journalists and two government ministers.

Keiko has already made clear that she will do everything in her power to remove Castillo from office, or at least make his government untenable, just as she did between 2016 and 2021, when her obstructionist tactics resulted in the removal of two presidents and the naming of one president who resigned after mass protests against him, leading to the naming of the current president, Francisco Sagasti.

The backstory to Keiko Fujimori’s “big lie”

Many observers have drawn parallels between Keiko Fujimori’s allegations of fraud and attempts to overturn the results of the November 2020 U.S. presidential elections. Donald Trump refused to recognize his defeat to Joe Biden, sought to pressure elections officials to “find” votes to alter the outcome, and has relied on an ecosystem of conservative news outlets willing to spread the “big lie” of elections fraud. The similarities are indeed striking. Like Trump and his supporters, Keiko Fujimori has propagated the falsehood that electoral fraud was committedprecisely in order to steal the election. And as in Trump’s case, the failure of Keiko’s “big lie” to achieve its immediate objective of subverting the vote’s outcome still risks gravely undermining public confidence in the fairness of elections and democratic institutions. Indeed, implicit in the logic of selling the big lie is not only that an injustice has been committed, but that the opposing side is treacherous and poses an existential risk to the future of the country. Stoking fears and hatred can establish a political climate that can then be used to justify the need for extreme measures.

But Keiko Fujimori and her supporters are not simply copying the Trump playbook. Keiko is  drawing on and deploying the lessons she learned at the feet of her father, Alberto Fujimori, Peru’s last dictator.

After a decade in power, in which he destroyed democratic institutions and constructed a civil-military dictatorship that ruled through clientelism, corruption, and fear, Alberto Fujimori secured a third term as president in 2000 through massive fraud. Electoral institutions were manipulated to guarantee Fujimori’s victory, leading the OAS to withdraw its election observers and to declare the elections fraudulent. Despite massive street protests, Fujimori was inaugurated on July 28, 2000. Months later, after the publication of videotapes revealed colossal corruption, his regime collapsed. Fujimori fled the country in disgrace and resigned by fax. Congress rejected his resignation and removed him as president on grounds of “moral incapacity.”

Keiko Fujimori disappeared from the political scene after her father’s removal as president. She had served as First Lady since 1994. She was just 19 years old, and her father appointed her to the position after separating from his wife, Susana Higuchi. The couple became estranged after Higuchi publicly denounced government corruption, especially among members of the Fujimori family; Higuchi claims Fujimori tortured her on repeated occasions before throwing her out.

Rebuilding Fujimorismo

Keiko did not reenter politics until 2005, when her father was arrested in Chile, scuttling his plan to launch a new bid for the presidency in the 2006 elections. She was elected to Congress in 2006 with the highest number of votes, revealing that the Fujimori name still resonated among parts of the population.

The following year, her father was extradited to Peru, put on trial, and eventually sentenced to 25 years in prison for gross human rights violations, corruption, and abuse of authority. The conviction was a landmark in the global human rights movement. But Keiko refused to acknowledge the verdict’s legitimacy, repeatedly stating that the trial was orchestrated by her father’s enemies and vowing to secure his freedom. Her failure to persuade then-President Alan García to pardon her father was one of the factors that led her to launch her own presidential campaign in 2011. Her main goal was to free her father.

Portraying her father as a victim and asserting his role as Peru’s savior, Keiko rebuilt Fujimorismo. Still, she has failed three times to win the presidency. In 2011, she lost by a three percent margin to national populist and former army officer Ollanta Humala and immediately conceded defeat. In 2016, she lost to center-right banker Pedro Pablo Kuczynski, known as PPK, by only 40,000 votes; she begrudgingly acknowledged the results but never accepted her defeat. Indeed, during the 2021 campaign, she frequently told reporters that her mistake in 2016 was failing to demand a recount.

Although Fujimori narrowly lost to PPK in her bid for the presidency in 2016, her party, Fuerza Popular, took 56 percent of the congressional seats. This was enough to engineer a super-majority coalition in Congress. She used that power to bring PPK to his knees, censuring ministers and cabinets, threatening to remove him from office, and making the country ungovernable.

Political turmoil in lead-up to 2021 vote

In 2018, Congress was set to vote to remove PPK again based on allegations of Odebrecht-related corruption, when audiotapes emerged revealing that his Christmas Eve 2017 “humanitarian pardon” of Alberto Fujimori was part of a self-serving political deal with Fujimori’s son, Kenji, at that time a member of Congress. PPK resigned in disgrace, and was later arrested on corruption charges.

With PPK’s resignation, Vice President Martín Vizcarra was sworn in as president. He too faced the obstruction of the Fujimori-controlled Congress but used his constitutional powers to dissolve the legislature and convene snap congressional elections in January 2020.

While no longer controlled by Fuerza Popular, the new Congress included a broader array of conservative politicians, more than half of whom were under investigation for corruption. They resisted Vizcarra’s reform policies, especially his proposal to eliminate congressional immunity, and ultimately succeeded in removing him from office in November 2020. Manuel Merino, president of Congress, and one of those who engineered Vizacarra’s removal, was named interim president.

But the move was widely seen as a political ploy by corrupt members of Congress to protect their privilege. Mass protests erupted against Merino. Police violence against protesters, which led to the deaths of two students, fueled further mass demonstrations, forcing Merino’s quick resignation. Francisco Sagasti of the centrist Purple Party was named interim president. His chief task: convene free and fair elections in 2021 and ensure a smooth transition of power.

Keiko Fujimori was the most unpopular of the 18 presidential candidates running in the 2021 elections. But in such a fragmented field, her name recognition again helped her, and she made it into the second round, along with Pedro Castillo. Polls consistently showed that Keiko had a very high anti-vote—more than half of voters said they would never vote for her. Castillo, who rose in the polls just a month before the first-round vote, had never held public office, and was dismissed by some observers simply because of his background as a farmer and teacher from rural Peru. But he proved to be more charismatic and appealing than anyone imagined. In some regions, especially in rural Peru, he won 80 percent of the vote and higher.

Unwilling to abide a third defeat, Keiko Fujimori adopted the same scorched-earth approach evident during her recent tenure as leader of the opposition. With no evidence, she continues to insist on her narrative of fraud.

The mainstream media has uncritically repeated her claims of fraud. Her father’s master of manipulation, Vladimiro Montesinos, even intervened from prison, imparting advice to her on everything from how to debate Castillo to how to overturn the election results. And some of her closest allies—including novelist Mario Vargas Llosa, once her fiercest critic—are not only accommodating this narrative, but have openly justified a coup. At a July 9 Madrid conference, the Nobel prize for literature winner said: “Anything done to stop this operation [of fraud], which is shady, seditious, which violates the rule of law and democracy itself, is perfectly justified.”

The likelihood of a military coup appears remote. But one possible scenario is that the diverse right-wing parties in Congress unite to force Castillo out of the presidency using the “moral incapacity” clause of the Constitution, which requires only 87 out of 130 congressional votes.

Keiko Fujimori’s sustained assault on electoral institutions, abided by the Lima establishment and mainstream media, have left an indelible imprint on the country. While she has never won the nation’s highest office, Keiko Fujimori has defined the current moment more than any other political figure in Peru has. She says over and over that she is working in favor of Peru’s democracy, but her actions over the past five years, and especially during the past six weeks, suggest otherwise. Her insistence on the “big lie” of election fraud and her refusal to accept the legitimacy of Castillo’s presidency reveal her fundamental rejection of the key tenet of democracy: adhering to the rules of the game, win or lose. Even while losing, she has severely undermined Castillo’s presidency. And when she does eventually come to trial, she will predictably claim that the charges against her are a revenge plot by her political opponents, including President Castillo, though the charges are based on solid evidence and pre-date his rise to power.

Turbulent waters ahead

The son of illiterate campesinos, Pedro Castillo won Peru’s top office—a national first. He has comported himself admirably in the face of the right-wing barrage of redbaiting, racialized insults, and efforts to steal the election.

The true test of his abilities to navigate turbulent waters begins on July 28. He will become president of a sharply divided country that has been especially hard hit by the pandemic. He enters office with his legitimacy already questioned by Fujimori and her followers. Castillo lacks a majority in Congress, having only 37 out of 130 legislative seats, and he will face a hostile bloc of rightist parties who will seek to thwart his policy agenda and may seek to remove him as president using the 1993 Constitution’s vague “moral incapacity” clause.

Numerous questions have been raised about Castillo’s alliance with Vladimir Cerrón, the president of Peru Libre and former governor of Junín department, who is serving a four-year suspended prison sentence for corruption and who faces a slew of other accusations of corruption. Castillo has tried to stake out his own ground, partly out of necessity to win over more moderate voters, and to build a working coalition in Congress. During the campaign, he built a close alliance with two-time presidential candidate Verónika Mendoza of the moderate left party, Juntos por el Peru, and may be able to build a working coalition with other centrist parties such as Somos Peru and the Purple Party. At the same time, concerns remain about Peru Libre’s positions on critical human rights issues, including LGBT+ rights, women’s rights, and the death penalty.

As of this writing, we know little about who Castillo’s cabinet members will be, what his policy priorities will be, or how he will handle the pandemic public health crisis. We do know that the Lima establishment will continue its hostile stance toward his government, creating pressures that could further push Peru to a breaking point. While the election crisis provoked by Keiko Fujimori’s baseless claims of fraud is now over, there are more turbulent times ahead for Peru.