Peru heads towards presidential runoff after vote gives surprise lead to Pedro Castillo

If an early count is confirmed, the far-left schoolteacher could face either Keiko Fujimori or Hernando de Soto in June

Peru's presidential candidate Pedro Castillo in Tacobamba on Sunday.
Peru's presidential candidate Pedro Castillo in Tacobamba on Sunday.Francisco Vigo (EFE)

Another Peru spoke up on Sunday at the first round of the presidential election – a Peru that is not made up of sophisticated capital dwellers hooked on Twitter, and one that was getting very little attention during the campaign.

Yet this other Peru has managed to push a long-shot candidate to the top of the presidential race: the radical left-wing schoolteacher and union leader Pedro Castillo was the most-voted contender on Sunday with 18.1% of the votes, according to an early quick count by a polling firm whose results were released in the early hours of Monday.

The same poll placed the conservative Keiko Fujimori, daughter of former president Alberto Fujimori, in second place with 14,5% of the votes. If these figures are confirmed, the country will head towards a June runoff between two candidates whose chances seemed slim just a few weeks ago. Another conservative nominee, Hernando de Soto, is close on Fujimori’s heels for second spot and could overtake her by the time the official count is over.

Castillo rode a horse to his voting station in Chota (Cajamarca), located 1,000 kilometers from Lima. In the capital, this candidate comes across as an outlandish figure, but in the central and southern regions of the country there is significant support for him. This is reflected in the voting: according to the poll, barely 5% of voters in Lima – which is home to a quarter of Peru’s 32.5 million citizens – backed Castillo’s Perú Libre (Free Peru) party. But in some of the country’s poorest regions, support was in excess of 50%.

Lima against the regions

The runoff will thus become a battle between Lima and the regions. “The people are wise, the people understand, I am committed to the people who came out today to the polls to reflect this democratically,” said Castillo in statements to reporters after the early count was released. Hundreds of people celebrated all around him as though the coronavirus were a thing of the past.

The vote has once again evidenced the profound territorial and social cleavages in Peru. “I am very anxious about the fact that a far-left candidate might go to the runoff,” said Julia Valdivia, 34, standing outside a school in the upper-class neighborhood of Miraflores in Lima. “If that happens and Keiko Fujimori is the other candidate, I’ll be forced to vote for her, although I’ve never wanted to do that. But she would not sink Peru into stagnation, while Castillo is going to destroy my country.”

Some 23 kilometers from there, in the district of Villa El Salvador, Ormilda Yamaní stood in line with an empty oxygen bottle in her hands outside one of the city’s sale points. Her grandmother, who caught Covid-19 three weeks ago, has such low saturation in the blood that she requires additional oxygen 24 hours a day. Yamaní comes here twice a day to fill up the bottle. “Sometimes I arrive at 7pm and I don’t get to the front of the line before 10am,” she explained.

On Sunday, between comings and goings with the heavy bottle, she found some time to go vote for Castillo. “I think he has good proposals for education,” she said. The suspension of in-person classes since March 2020 due to the pandemic has mostly affected low-income families.

A few meters from this spot, in the heart of this working-class district of the capital, dozens of people stood in line on Sunday to vote at the public school Príncipe de Asturias. María, a 36-year-old housewife, said she voted “for whoever” because no candidate fully convinced her. Jorge, 29, who works in cellphone sales, voted for the conservative Hernando de Soto “because of his knowledge and because he said that the price of [the Covid] vaccine would be accessible for those who don’t have it,” alluding to De Soto’s proposal to make the private sector purchase doses.

Nancy Urunkuy, 47, was not there to vote but to search for the father of her three children. He walked out three years ago and never sent any money to support the family. “He lives around here, he’s got to show up,” she said.

During a taxi ride back to Miraflores, the driver, Romer Egusquiza, was informed that his cousin had just died from coronavirus. “She’s the fourth relative to pass away,” he said. Michel, an employee at one of the companies that refill oxygen tanks, explained that they operate the phone lines for just one hour each afternoon to make appointments, and that each day they receive over 3,000 calls.

Peruvians went to vote at the height of the pandemic in that country, which is seeing a peak of over 380 daily deaths according to the official count, although this figure probably does not take into account people like Egusquiza’s cousin, who died at home. The driver said he was going to vote but that he was planning to deliberately check too many boxes in order to invalidate his ballot.

The political scientist José Incio explained in a telephone interview that in such a fragmented election, Pedro Castillo is attracting voters “who are not adverse to risk, who want something different and who hope to find a solution to specific needs that the current system has failed to help them out with.” Incio also believes Castillo’s sucess rests on his defense of a different identity for Peru than the one reflected in the media. “If an alien landed in Peru right now and only watched television, it might infer that all Peruvians look like the ones on TV, who all seem half-European, but that is not the case,” he notes.

Castillo vs Fujimori?

If the results of the quick count are confirmed, Keiko Fujimori would go on to the runoff for the third election in a row. In 2011 she was defeated by Ollanta Humala, and in 2016 by Pedro Pablo Kuczynski. She is also the most widely rejected candidate among voters, according to the polls, which show a rejection rate of 65% for her.

But a surprise left-wing contender like Castillo could channel all the conservative votes towards her, giving Fujimori a fresh opportunity at a delicate time as she battles corruption charges – prosecutors want her to serve 30 years in prison for money laundering. After a highly fragmented vote in which none of the candidates attracted 20% of the ballots, that small window of opportunity could be just enough to turn Fujimori into the next president of Peru in June.

Pedro Castillo Terrones, 51, was born in Cajamarca, one of the poorest regions of Peru despite being home to South America’s largest gold mine. A leader of a teachers’ union, since 1995 he has also been a schoolteacher at School 10465, located in the village of Puña, in the northern Chota province.

A radical leftist, Castillo has pledged to replace the 1993 Constitution, regulate the media to “put an end to junk TV” and raise budget allocations for education and healthcare. A social conservative, he has positioned himself against abortion, same-sex marriage, euthanasia and gender perspective at school.

English version by Susana Urra.

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