Lima, Peru – Weary Peruvians heading to the polls this Sunday face an unlikely conundrum – an overwhelming majority of them will have rejected whomever they elect as their new president.
That is the inevitable outcome of a five-way statistical tie between the leading presidential candidates, all of whom face unprecedentedly low support in a country devastated by the coronavirus pandemic and five years of political scandals.
Any of the five could make it to an inevitable June 6 runoff, required when no candidate takes more than 50 percent of the vote. With the frontrunners only occasionally breaking into double digits, depending on the poll, that means that Peru’s new president will have been rebuffed by about 90 percent of the electorate in the first round.
The new Congress, which will also be elected on Sunday, will be equally splintered and, experts expect, as populist and fractious as the current legislature, without a majority backing the president.
Meanwhile, lawmakers’ removal of popular corruption-busting President Martin Vizcarra last November, on as-yet unproven graft charges, has redefined the Constitution to effectively allow presidential impeachment on a congressional whim.
That could put the executive and the legislature on a collision course, with the new president racing to use an extreme constitutional clause to dissolve Congress – the same one Vizcarra used in 2019 to get rid of an obstructionist and deeply unpopular cohort of legislators – before it removes him.
“We’re going to have a very weak president and a very weak Congress, who are each going to make their presence felt by threatening this nuclear option,” Jose Alejandro Godoy, a Lima-based professor of political science at the Pontifical Catholic University of Peru, told Al Jazeera.
The prediction of more political instability could not come at a worse time for Peru.
The country has been overwhelmed by the variant of the coronavirus first found in Brazil, with March proving to be the deadliest month. According to the official death registry, Sinadef, 31,399 people died from confirmed or suspected cases of the coronavirus last month, out of a pandemic total of 140,006.
The economy also shrunk 17 percent, one of the largest decreases in the world, in the first half of last year. Officially, unemployment more than doubled to 1.5 million during 2020, although that figure fails to capture the full scale of the damage in a country where more than 70 percent of workers were informally employed before the pandemic.
Despite that, the presidential candidates appear short on ideas on how to improve Peru’s pandemic performance, which has relied largely on draconian lockdowns with no attempt at contact tracing – or dealing with the country’s pre-existing sickness: endemic corruption.
“Unfortunately, the majority of candidates, especially the leading candidates, don’t appear to have a plan for the pandemic,” said Percy Mayta-Tristan, a medical researcher at Lima’s Scientific University of the South.
Samuel Rotta, executive director of the Peruvian chapter of the anti-corruption group Transparency International, added, “Most of the candidates’ proposals to deal with corruption just don’t rise to the level needed to meet this problem.”
To make matters worse, Peru has been experiencing a deep and protracted political crisis ever since Pedro Pablo Kuczynski won the 2016 presidential election, narrowly beating Keiko Fujimori, daughter of hard-right former 1990s strongman Alberto Fujimori, now serving a 25-year jail term for corruption and human rights abuses.
A Congress dominated by the Fujimorista Popular Force party forced Kuczynski’s resignation and then so hounded Vizcarra, who stepped up from the vice presidency, that more than eight in 10 Peruvians disapproved of the legislative body’s performance and wanted Vizcarra to dissolve it.
What no one expected was that the new Congress, elected in January 2020 and splintered into nine small blocs, would then turn on Vizcarra and impeach him.
That, coupled with Peru’s poor handling of the pandemic and the never-ending series of graft scandals involving most of the main parties in the 2016-2019 and current legislatures, explains why so many voters now view the 18 presidential candidates with distrust and contempt.
The top candidates
The narrow frontrunner in most polls is Yonhy Lescano, 62, a moderate-left, former member of Congress. He wants to “deglobalise” Peru’s economy and is offering to manufacture vaccines nationally – even though the country lacks the patents and technological capacity to do so.
To Lescano’s left is Veronika Mendoza, 40, who narrowly missed out on making it to the 2016 runoff. A socialist, she is prioritising social justice and reducing Peru’s poverty rate. Although Mendoza has clearly condemned Venezuela’s authoritarian regime, some in her Together for Peru party continue to defend it.
Fujimori, 45, the runner-up in the 2011 and 2016 runoffs, has seen her support collapse from 40 percent five years ago to less than 10 percent now after corruption scandals saw her spend more than a year in pretrial detention. She was recently charged with money laundering, with prosecutors demanding a 30-year jail sentence.
But thanks to Peru’s unusual electoral dynamic, Fujimori, who is promising an iron fist to tackle the country’s crime wave, still stands a real chance of making it to the runoff.
Then there is Rafael Lopez Aliaga, 60, an ultra-conservative Catholic businessman, who claims to be celibate and even self-flagellate. He has repeatedly lied on the campaign trail on a wide range of topics, from his businesses’ failure to pay taxes to the efficacy of vaccines. Lopez Aliaga promises that on his first day in office he will fly to the United States to personally return with enough COVID-19 vaccine doses to inoculate all Peruvians.
Finally, radical free marketeer Hernando de Soto, 79, wants to hand responsibility for vaccinating Peru’s entire population to the private sector, despite himself receiving a public vaccine in the US and warnings that that would make Peru the only country in the world refusing to offer its citizens a public vaccine.
“They’re all crooks. I don’t want to vote for any of them,” said Fernanda García, a 28-year-old secretary in Lima, summing up the feelings of many Peruvians.
“They promise you whatever you want to hear when it’s an election, and then when they take office, they don’t do anything to help ordinary people. Why should that change just because we’re in a pandemic?”