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David Knowlton: Democracy is at a standoff in Peru

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Thunder rolls in the Andes. After a close presidential election on June 6, there is still no official winner.

Nonetheless, everyone knows that, with 100% of the vote counted, Pedro Castillo won by some 40,000 votes out of more than 17 million cast, even if there is no official acknowledgment.

Slowly, agonizingly slowly, formal Peru is recognizing that Castillo has won and that their darling, three-time presidential candidate and former first lady Keiko Fujimori, has lost again.

These leaders of Peru are still sputtering. Fujimori has delayed the official announcement of a winner by crying fraud — yes, a Trumpist strategy — and registering demands with the National Elections Jury that hundreds of thousands of votes be annulled.

Her followers demand a rerun of the election — although such demands appear to violate Peruvian law. Some even call for a coup d’état, leading the Ministry of Defense to issue a statement rejecting such and supporting the electoral process.

After a campaign in which Fujimori accused Castillo and his followers of being communists, or even worse, terrorists — spawning a new word, terruqueo to accuse someone of being a terrorist — and raised the fear of an imminent Venezuela-style social collapse should Fujimori not win, the Fujimoristas inhabit a world of fear and distorted mirrors of their creation. In a quote reminiscent of Trump, Fujimori insists she will never stand down and will fight for the last vote.

Though she and her followers claim to fight for democracy, their actions and words call the democratic process into question. Results that negate their claims to their reality are, by definition, a fraud, even if they result from proper and verified voting.

A weighty date is almost here. July 28 is the date which, by constitutional law, a new president must take office. It may be that Fujimori and her friends calculate that delaying the process of declaring an official winner and sewing anxiety may lead to a constitutional crisis demanding the election be reconsidered. Hers is a slow, crawling coup against the constitution and a lost election.

After one of the most class and racially charged elections of history, in which a member of Lima’s elite — Fujimori —faced off against a person of indigenous and rural origins, a very modest teacher, many are becoming excited about a President from what some call “deep Peru,” its mass of workers, farmers and middle-classes of indigenous descent. He has won against what some Peruvians tersely call the invaders precisely on its 200th anniversary of independence.

It is deeply symbolic that Pedro Castillo is from Cajamarca. In this city, Spaniards took captive the Inca Atahualpa and the wealth of an empire flowed for his ransom. Nonetheless, the Spanish executed him and send the proceeds of ransom to Spain. That would seem to be overturned, if Castillo assumes office, even centuries after the country took independence from Spain.

Of course, there is more. Fujimori’s partisans claimed an economic miracle due to free markets and entrepreneurialism, a dream everyone could succeed while few do. Castillo’s campaign, by contrast, emphasized inequality in an unfair and improperly refereed economy.

The Peruvian left has been forcefully submerged for decades in the aftermath of Peru’s civil war during the late 20th century by the victorious and internationalist neoliberal right. However, it still existed, nourished in Peru’s south and its highlands by anger at Lima’s high-handedness, its brutal enforcement of international mining and petroleum agreements against local peoples, as well as the feeling of social and economic difference.

In this election, the left has emerged again, although from a fractured set of parties and without clear policies or a governing plan.

Much will depend on how Peru resolves the Fujimori magical realism built on concrete class and racial divides. It will also depend on how Castillo works to build a solid coalition of support and move politically to cut off the Fujimori opposition that through its control of Congress already removed from office two prior Presidents who had defeated the never quitting and eternal candidate.

Peru stands at a crossroads. Only time will tell us which of various paths it takes while storm clouds gather.

David Knowlton | Utah Valley University

David Knowlton, Salt Lake City, is a professor of anthropology at Utah Valley University and a specialist in the study of Peru and Bolivia, as well as of Mormonism.

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