Sunday’s Election Will Not Be Peru’s Reckoning with Corruption

It has been a dramatic five years in Peru since the last presidential election.

A series of standoffs between the executive and legislative branches have seen one dissolution of Congress and three attempts at impeachment of the president. Two former presidents have been arrested for their involvement in the Odebrecht corruption scandal, and a third committed suicide moments before the police arrived to arrest him. Keiko Fujimori, the opposition leader and two-time presidential runner-up, was arrested for corruption, released, and is now running for president once more.

This turbulence came to a head last October, when Peru was engulfed in its biggest political crisis in a generation. Martín Vizcarra, the former president who had served for two and a half years since Pedro Pablo Kuczynski resigned in 2018 in the face of a vote-buying scandal, was himself impeached by Congress following credible but unproven allegations that he had accepted bribes earlier in his career. Congress appointed Manuel Merino, the president of the Congress who spearheaded the campaign to impeach Vizcarra, as interim president. Peruvians, outraged at the abrupt removal of a president who enjoyed considerable public support for his commitment to anticorruption reform, took to the streets to protest. They were met with police violence, and two young Peruvians were killed. Merino relented, resigning the presidency after a five-day tenure, and Congress appointed Francisco Sagasti – a moderate who had voted against impeaching Vizcarra – to serve out the final months of the term until the April 11 election.

The magnitude of the public’s mobilization against Merino’s interim presidency was seen by many observers (myself included) as a decisive turning point in the Peruvian people’s willingness to tolerate a corrupt political class. The country’s public health and economy have been ravaged by Covid-19. If there were a perfect moment for a meaningful anticorruption movement to sweep from the bottom to the top – for Peruvian voters to have a sort of “day of reckoning” with systemic corruption – April 11 seemed like that moment.

But now, on the eve of the election, this reckoning looks doubtful to arrive.

Indeed, it seems that the vocal, assertive power that forced Merino out of office in October has given way to an all-consuming disenchantment with and apathy toward a political system that has brought a generation-long barrage of corruption and bad governance. The disengagement is evident from public opinion polling on attitudes toward the slate of 22 presidential candidates. Since November 2020, the percentage of survey respondents answering that they either didn’t know who they would vote for or that they planned to submit a blank ballot has been consistently greater than the combined percentage of respondents supporting the top two candidates. No single candidate has surpassed 18% of voter preference. Among the top seven candidates, the percentage of respondents pledging that they will “definitely” vote for that candidate ranges from 1% to 10%, while the percentage of respondents pledging that they “definitely will not”vote for that candidate ranges from 36% to 70%. In short, the polling indicates broad public opposition to the entire field.

Furthermore, it doesn’t seem that the voters have identified any candidate in the group as an anticorruption standard-bearer. When surveyed voters were asked “Which candidate would you say is best to fight corruption?”, no candidate garnered more than 12% of votes. The candidate with 12%, the former soccer player George Forsyth, hasn’t exactly galvanized the support of the Peruvian populace: In a poll conducted last month, 56% of respondents said they probably or definitely won’t vote for him.

The lack of a clear and credible “anticorruption candidate” is perhaps surprising, given the high public salience of the issue. Surveys indicate that 70% of Peruvian citizens believe that corruption is the biggest problem facing the country, and recent scandals—including, most prominently, the “Vacuna-gate” scandal, in which 487 senior government officials received vaccinations weeks before the vaccines became available even to the nation’s frontline workers—has kept the issue in the news. Yet it seems that this persistent corruption has mostly fed a deepening sense of cynicism about the political class as a whole. So while last October’s protests might have suggested at the time that the upcoming presidential election could be a moment in which the populace rallied behind a reformist figure who could spearhead a genuine cleanup of Peru’s crooked political system, this does not seem to have occurred. Instead of coalescing into a strong movement for good governance reform, last fall’s historic mobilization against the corrupt political elite has devolved into widespread disenchantment.

What should we expect, then, from the upcoming election? And is there any cause for hope in Peru’s ongoing struggle against corruption?

The election will almost certainly go to a run-off in June, given the very low probability that one candidate will win the requisite 50% of the vote to win in the first round. This would pit the two top candidates directly against each other. If polling is accurate, the first place candidate will probably be Yonhy Lescano, a left-wing populist. Second place is likely to go to either George Forsyth, the former soccer player running on a “tough on crime” platform, or Rafael López Aliaga, an ultraconservative businessman often compared to Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro. Lescano is favored in a run-off against López Aliaga, while a run-off between Lescano and Forsyth looks like a toss-up. But with so many voters still undecided, it’s very difficult to predict the outcome. As for whether the outcome of this election might help Peru turn the tide against endemic corruption, it’s hard to find reasons to be optimistic. But that doesn’t mean the prospects are hopeless. Even an election that fails to galvanize the electorate still provides opportunities to change direction. While this election isn’t shaping up to be the culmination of public frustration with corruption that some thought it might be, the Peruvian people’s anger about systemic corruption, and their hunger for substantive anticorruption reform, remain. The country’s next president should expect to be reminded early and often that the citizenry’s demand for major change could be reawakened at any moment.

3 thoughts on “Sunday’s Election Will Not Be Peru’s Reckoning with Corruption

  1. You are missing something and, from a naturalised Peruvian with sympathies in the anticorruption class, I’m letting you know that you may be surprised. My bet is that a lot of folks with definite voting intentions are keeping quiet. The reason is a widely-held suspicion that the “opinion polls” are themselves bought and paid for.

    If we say nothing, people say on social media, then the folks that believe/fund the polls cannot prepare themselves either by paying for dirty tricks operations or by removing their funds to safe places.

    The word in the “grass roots” street is that Forzay, de Sotano, and Lopez Alicata are trojan horses for the japanese woman, and “Yonel” has sympathies towards our neighbouring and not-much-loved neighbour. Oh and the “leftista” Pedrito is a hanger-out with the old guards of Apra and Fuji. All of this is common knowledge. None of these have much traction out here away from the bubbling class.

    Maybe you’ve been chatting with the wrong people… anyway, let’s see.

  2. Thank you for sharing this interesting perspective. I’d be curious to learn how many political outsiders with an anticorruption agenda have come to power following the scandals. We have seen this happen everywhere from Eastern Europe to India, so why hasn’t anticorruption come more to the fore?

    Is part of the disengagement perhaps coming from COVID and from voter dissatisfaction with the government response? With COVID presenting a whole new, unprecedented threat, has corruption simply slipped further down the agenda?

    • Hi Disha,

      It’s a great question, and I agree that it’s surprising to see nobody explicitly fill that void, beyond perfunctory statements about fighting corruption (in this election or in past ones). If you had asked me on Saturday, I would have said I think the public health and economic turmoil caused by COVID loom especially large.

      Yesterday’s results, however, only muddle things further. The surprise frontrunner was Pedro Castillo, a left-wing populist who famously led a teachers’ strike in 2017 and apparently has ties to Shining Path. It looks like his competitor in the runoff will end up being none other than Keiko Fujimori, who belongs to the corrupt political establishment perhaps more than any other candidate. No candidate received more than 20% of the vote. If the economy were really so central, one would think that a candidate like Hernando De Soto, an economist, would have made the runoff. The results reveal an electorate that has no meaningful consensus on the way out of its current political morass.

      My best theory is this: to coalesce behind an anticorruption outsider implies faith that the system has the capacity to change and improve, and the barrage of corruption scandals that Peruvians have had to endure over the past generation has chipped away at that faith. The protracted battle between the executive and legislative branches only make things worse. So, instead of believing in an optimistic movement about reforming government, it’s easier for voters to choose those they know will represent their interests (Castillo, as a rural, working-class candidate) or those who are so established that they might at least provide more efficiency in returning to normalcy (Keiko, as an entrenched political elite).

      There’s also another possible (and not mutually exclusive) explanation: there just hasn’t been a candidate with the talent and appeal to unify an electorate that is otherwise ripe for a grassroots movement.

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