When a virtually unknown university rector named Alberto Fujimori entered Peru’s 1990 presidential race, few observers thought he had any chance of winning. Yet in one of the most stunning political upsets in Latin American history, Fujimori came from nowhere to defeat the world-renowned writer Mario Vargas Llosa, a future Nobel laureate, in a second-round vote.
Three decades later, Fujimori’s daughter Keiko, a former lawmaker in her third run for the country’s highest office, is facing off in a June 6 runoff election against Pedro Castillo, a rural teacher and union leader from the northern region of Cajamarca. Today, Keiko Fujimori is the insider, and Castillo is even more of an outsider than Alberto Fujimori was in 1990. (Polls show that Fujimori has been gaining ground in the campaign’s final stretch, although Castillo retains a razor-thin lead.) Yet as in 1990, this election is taking place at a moment of extreme precariousness for Peruvian democracy.
Back then, Peru was racked by hyperinflation, economic mismanagement, and the Shining Path insurgency. Today, it is suffering the economic and social effects of the pandemic—with more than 213 deaths per 100,000 people, Peru has the world’s highest per capita death rate—which aggravated an already severe political and institutional crisis. In November, amid massive street protests, the country had three presidents within one week. With heightened uncertainty and intense polarization, Peru once again provides fertile ground for candidates who reject the prevailing order and promise far-reaching change—and who also exhibit authoritarian tendencies and little capacity to bring Peruvians together on a more constructive course. Sadly, the country’s profound crises have left voters with a choice that, no matter how it turns out, promises further erosion in citizens’ confidence in democratic institutions and little hope of democratic renewal.