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.