The victory of Pedro Castillo in the Peruvian presidential election is a major political earthquake, which reflects the enormous social and political polarisation in the Andean country. The ruling class has been dealt a massive defeat by the masses, who have rallied behind a militant teacher trade unionist at the head of a party, Perú Libre, which calls itself Marxist, Leninist and Mariateguist (after Mariátegui, the founder of the Peruvian labour and socialist movement).
The count was a slow and painful process, and the final result was not clear until the very end, three days after the closing of polls on 6 June. At the time of writing, with 99.795 percent of the votes tallied, Pedro Castillo has 8,735,448 votes (50.206 percent), giving him a small but irreversible advantage over his rival, the right-wing populist Keiko Fujimori, who got 8,663,684 votes (49.794 percent).
Even at this point, the official results have not been proclaimed, with Fujimori’s team alleging fraud and filing dozens of appeals. The masses are ready to defend the vote on the streets. There are reports of 20,000 ronderos (members of the peasant self-defence militias created during the civil war in the 1990s, of which Castillo is a member) travelling to the capital to defend the peoples’ will. A mass demonstration has been called today, 9 June, in Lima, where people have gathered for three nights in a row outside Castillo’s election headquarters.
It was the extreme fragmentation of the vote in the first round that allowed Castillo to go on to the run-off with only under 19 percent. However, his electoral success is not by chance. It is an expression of the deep crisis of the regime in Peru. Decades of anti-working-class policies of privatisation and liberalisation in a country that is extremely rich in mineral resources have left a legacy of a bourgeois democracy based on extreme disparity of wealth and pervasive corruption.
Five former presidents are either in jail or indicted for corruption. All of the institutions of bourgeois democracy are extremely discredited. Mass demonstrations in November 2020 were an expression of the deep anger accumulated in Peruvian society.
To this we have to add the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic and capitalist crisis. The country suffered one of the worst economic contractions in Latin America at 11 percent, and has recorded the worst percentage of excess deaths, and the worst death rate anywhere in the world, while the rich and government politicians jumped the queue for vaccinations.
A vote for radical change
The masses of workers and peasants wanted radical change and this is precisely what Pedro Castillo represents in their eyes. His campaign had two main policy planks: the renegotiation of terms of contracts with mining multinationals (and if they refuse, they would be nationalised), and the convening of a Constituent Assembly to do away with the 1993 constitution written during the Fujimori dictatorship (Keiko’s father).
His main election slogans: “no more poor people in a rich country” and “teacher’s word” resonated with the oppressed, the workers, the poor, the peasants, the downtrodden, the indigenous Quechua and Aymara, particularly in working-class and poor areas far away from Lima’s fair-skinned upper-class circles.
Castillo’s authority comes from having defied the trade union bureaucracy to lead the 2017 teacher’s strike. To the workers and peasants, he is one of their own. A humble rural teacher with peasant roots who has promised to live on his teacher’s wage when he becomes president. His appeal is precisely that of being an anti-establishment outsider from the left. His popularity reveals a deep discrediting of bourgeois democracy and all political parties.
Even though Keiko Fujimori was not their favourite candidate, the whole of the Peruvian ruling class closed ranks behind her in the second round. Their campaign was vicious. Billboards in Lima proclaimed “Communism is poverty”, and the people were threatened with the seven plagues if Castillo was to win the election. He was the candidate of violent Sendero Luminoso (the 1990s terrorist-guerrilla group), they were told. Nobel prize winner Vargas Llosa, who in the past opposed Alberto Fujimori’s rule from a bourgeois liberal point of view, penned furious opinion articles claiming a victory for Castillo would spell the end of democracy.
Despite all of that, or perhaps precisely because of the hatred it provoked amongst the ruling class, Castillo started the second round campaign 20 points ahead of his rival. That lead narrowed as election day came closer. Partly because the hate campaign pushed wavering voters towards Keiko Fujimori, but also partly because Castillo attempted to tone down his message and moderate his promises.
While in the first round he had promised to convene a Constituent Assembly come what may, now he said he would respect the 1993 Constitution and ask Congress (where he has no majority) to call a referendum on convening a Constituent Assembly. While in the first round he said he would nationalise the mines, now he stressed that he would attempt to renegotiate the contracts first. The more he did that, the more his lead narrowed, to a point where on election day his victory was only razor thin.
The narrow victory, however, masks the sharp class polarisation of the country. Fujimori has won in Lima (65-34) and even here her best results are in the richest districts: San Isidro (88 percent), Miraflores (84 percent) and Surco (82 percent). Castillo has won in 17 out of the country’s 25 districts, with massive victories in the poorer Andean and southern regions: Ayacucho 82 percent, Huancavelica 85 percent, Puno 89 percent, Cusco 83 percent. He also won in his natal Cajamarca (71 percent), a region where there have been massive anti-mining protests.
In the last days of the campaign, Keiko Fujimori, in a classic populist style, promised direct handouts of money from mining companies’ payments to the population in the towns where the mines are based. This was an attempt to lure away voters from Castillo’s proposal of changing the contracts to benefit the whole of the people. The voters chose Castillo massively in all of the mining towns: in Chumbivilcas (Cusco), 96 percent, Cotabambas (Apurímac), the base of the Chinese MMG Las Bambas, over 91 percent, Espinar (Cusco), where Glencore operates, over 92 percent; Huari (Áncash) where there is a joint BHP Billiton - Glencore mine, over 80 percent.
The masses of workers and peasants who support Castillo were ready to come out on the streets to defend his victory, as Fujimori cried fraud and appealed the results. In the days leading up to the election and immediately afterwards there have been rumours of a military coup. Prominent Fujimori supporters called on the Army to step in to prevent a Castillo take over.
There is no doubt that a section of the ruling class in Peru is in panic and played all the tricks in the book to prevent Castillo from winning the election. They see him as a threat to their power and privileges and the way they have ruled the country since its independence 200 years ago.
So far, it seems the most cautious elements in the ruling class have prevailed. An editorial in the main bourgeois paper La Republica described Fujimori as irresponsible for crying fraud. “We appeal to the sensible and thoughtful leadership of political leaders and authorities. We need to calm the streets of the interior of the country, which bustle between mistrust and fed up.” This is what they are worried about. Any attempt to steal the election from Castillo would bring the masses of workers and peasants out on the streets, further radicalising them.
This gives you an indication of what Castillo will face once he is sworn in. The ruling class and imperialism will resort to all means necessary to prevent him from actually ruling. We have seen the same script being played in the past against Chavez in Venezuela. Prominent members of the coup-plotting Venezuelan opposition were in Lima to back Fujimori. They will use Congress and other bourgeois institutions, the media, the state apparatus (up to and including the army), economic sabotage, to constrain his ability to implement his policies.
Defend the victory: prepare for battle
Castillo’s programme, despite the references to Marx, Lenin and Mariategui in Peru Libre’s documents, is one of national capitalist development. He wants to use the country’s mineral wealth for social programmes (chiefly education) and work with “productive national businessmen” to “develop the economy”. His model is Ecuador’s Correa and Bolivia’s Morales.
The problem is that such responsible “national productive” capitalists do not exist. The Peruvian ruling class, the bankers, landowners, capitalists, are closely tied to the interests of the multinationals and imperialism. They are interested not in any “national development” but in their own enrichment.
Castillo will now be faced with a dilemma. On the one hand, he can rule for the masses of workers and peasants who have elected him, which would mean a radical break with the capitalists and the multinationals. That can only be done by relying upon extra-parliamentary mass mobilisation. Or he can give in, water down his programme and accommodate to the interests of the ruling class, meaning he will be discredited among those who have voted for him, preparing his own downfall. If he attempts to serve two masters (the workers and the capitalists) at the same time he will please neither.
In an attempt to reassure “the markets”, which were jittery during the count, Castillo’s team issued a statement which is worth quoting at length:
“In an eventual government of Professor Pedro Castillo Terrones, Peru Libre's presidential candidate, we will respect the autonomy of the Central Reserve Bank, which has done a good job keeping inflation low for more than two decades. We reiterate that we have not considered in our economic plan nationalisations, expropriations, confiscations of savings, exchange controls, price controls or import prohibitions. The popular economy with markets that we advocate promotes the growth of companies and businesses, particularly agriculture and SMEs, in order to generate more jobs and better economic opportunities for all Peruvians. We will maintain an open and broad dialogue with the various sectors of honest businessmen and entrepreneurs, whose role in industrialization and productive development is fundamental. Guaranteeing the right to health and education for all requires improving quality and increasing social spending, which must be based in mining tax reforms to increase collection within the framework of a fiscal sustainability policy, with a gradual reduction of the public deficit and respecting all commitments to pay the Peruvian public debt” (my emphasis).
Castillo himself declared: “I have just had conversations with the national business community that is showing support for the people. We will create a government that is respectful of democracy, of the current Constitution. We will create a government with financial and economic stability." All experience shows that what the ruling class describes as “financial and economic stability” in reality means making the workers and the poor pay for the crisis of their system while guaranteeing the best possible conditions for the realisation of capitalist profits. Paying the debt is in contradiction to carrying out a social spending policy. To this Castillo should oppose the general interests of the workers and peasants. There is no middle road.
For now, the Peruvian masses celebrate and remain en garde to defend their victory. The struggle has only begun. Every step forward which Castillo takes should be supported. His vacillations or retreats should be criticised. The workers and peasants can only trust in their own forces and these should be mobilised to strike blows against the oligarchy.
Mariategui, in the conclusion to his “Anti-Imperialist Point of View”, a document which he presented to the Latin American Conference of Communist Parties in 1929, said:
“In conclusion, we are anti-imperialists because we are Marxists, because we are revolutionaries, because to capitalism, we oppose socialism as an antagonistic system, called to succeed it.”
His point of view is today more relevant than ever.