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Authoritarianism Revisited: The Peruvian Far-Right’s War Against Democracy

“The election will be flipped, dear friends,” Peruvian presidential candidate Keiko Fujimori cried to her supporters, referring to an election she lost.

How did Peru get here?

On June 6, 2021, Peruvians voted in the most polarized election in decades. An earlier general election had yielded two historically unpopular run-off candidates: Pedro Castillo, a political newcomer, teachers’ union leader, and avowed socialist, and Keiko Fujimori, the far-right, establishment-backed daughter of former Peruvian dictator Alberto Fujimori.

The candidates represent disparate sides of Peru’s deeply unequal society. Throughout the 21st century, Peru’s corporatist government has built its economic success on the exploitation of impoverished rural Peruvians, resulting in widespread political disillusionment and the worst per capita Covid-19 death toll in the world as of June 2021. So, on June 6, the primarily poor and Indigenous residents of the interior highlands overwhelmingly voted for Castillo, while the whiter business, media, and political elite of the coastal cities coalesced behind Ms. Fujimori.

According to government tallies and international observer consensus, Castillo beat Ms. Fujimori by about 40,000 votes. But for months, Ms. Fujimori and her allies systematically impugned the validity of these results. Her campaign leveled baseless accusations of voter fraud and sued to nullify roughly 200,000 ballots in predominantly Indigenous precincts. In their desperate bid to subvert democracy, Ms. Fujimori and the far-right reached into the depths of Peru’s authoritarian past to stave off the future.

Echoes of her father’s authoritarianism endured within Ms. Fujimori’s attempts to overturn the election, from an allyship with repressive military officials to backdoor bribery operations. Under the guise of combating the Shining Path terrorist group, Mr. Fujimori dissolved Peru’s Congress and supported military and intelligence agencies as they committed human rights abuses during his tenure. In 2021, almost 100 ex-military officers signed a letter exhorting the Armed Forces to not recognize Castillo if his presidential victory was formally certified. And, in a startling turn of events, Mr. Fujimori’s infamous intelligence chief Vladimir Montesinos—who is currently serving a 20-year prison term—was caught on tape advising a retired commander to bribe election judges for Ms. Fujimori. The irony was lost on no one: Back in 2000, the release of videos showing Montesinos extorting politicians led to the fall of Mr. Fujimori in the first place.

The specter of left-wing violence remains a potent cudgel for autocrats in 2021. Ms. Fujimori and the media behemoth El Comercio—which controls over 80 percent of Peru’s newspapers—have sought to paint Castillo as a violent, Shining Path-connected communist who would destroy the economy. Unknown sources have funded anti-Castillo propaganda in Lima, from ominous billboards to fear-mongering WhatsApp messages. After a brutal massacre on May 23rd, the Peruvian military immediately blamed the Shining Path, the media followed suit, and Ms. Fujimori went so far as to publicly link Castillo to the killings. But local authorities have yet to determine who is responsible.

Ms. Fujimori’s strongest weapon, though, may be the interlinked social ills that have plagued Peru for centuries: classism and anti-Indigenous racism. Her father oversaw the forced sterilization of nearly 300,000 Indigenous Peruvians, and although he is facing charges for these crimes, Ms. Fujimori promised to pardon him if elected. It is no coincidence that her fraud allegations target rural, Indigenous areas—they tap into long-standing racist undercurrents among the European-descended upper classes. These prejudices have come to the fore as elites face the prospect of losing power. Widespread internet memes portrayed Castillo as a donkey; preeminent Peruvian intellectual Mario Vargas Llosa said the “catastrophe” of Castillo “is evident to the immense majority of Peruvians, especially Peruvians from cities and Peruvians who are better informed.” At Ms. Fujimori’s rallies, some attendees display emblems of the Spanish Empire and raise their arms in Nazi salutes. Beneath the rhetoric of fraud and economic fears lies the simple fact that some Peruvians see their votes as superior to others.

More broadly, Castillo’s ascendancy represents a long-simmering backlash to a globalized neoliberalism that ignores the impoverished. The current Peruvian Constitution, drafted in 1993 by Mr. Fujimori with support from the US government, transformed Peru into a haven for business at the expense of the marginalized. Castillo’s election was a populist, protectionist uprising against this modern-day colonialism. He seeks to renegotiate major industry contracts to ensure that more profits flow to average Peruvians, instead of only going to foreign investors and urban business elites.

Peru’s embattled election could foreshadow a revitalized Pink Tide—a leftward turn—in Latin America, or it could portend a further slide into region-wide autocracy. Castillo, faced with steep opposition in a fragmented Congress, likely won’t be able to accomplish his bolder proposals, such as redrafting the Constitution. But his election nevertheless represents a stark, permanent shift in the Peruvian political landscape—and with it, the dawn of a more democratic, equitable future that the conservative old guard cannot forestall.