In Peru’s Presidential Election, The Most Popular Choice Is No One

LIMA, Peru – Vicenta Escobar, 62, sells fruit from a stall in the streets of Peru’s capital, Lima. In every presidential election over the past four decades, she has chosen a candidate she believed in in the hopes that he or she would make a difference.

But not this time. She wants to arrive at her polling station this Sunday to vote – as required by Peruvian law. But she will cast her vote without making a single note.

“I plan to leave it blank,” she said on Thursday afternoon. She said she was fed up with “all the lies and robberies.”

Peruvians are voting on Sunday at a moment when many cite one of the deepest points in the country’s young democracy. Eighteen candidates are on the ballot, but according to several recent polls, around 15 percent of voters are expected to cast a blank vote, and no candidate has received more than 10 percent support. The two leading candidates will advance to a runoff if no one gets more than half of the votes.

The elections follow a turbulent five-year period, with the country going through four presidents and two congresses, and they take place amid mounting frustration over corruption, pandemic, and a political system that many say has served the interests of corporations and officials – but not from normal people.

Those sworn in later this year likely have the weakest presidential mandate in recent history and will be forced to grapple with dual economic and health crises that will shape the country for years to come.

Peru has one of the highest coronavirus death rates in the world, and daily deaths hit new highs this month as the Brazilian variant of the virus spread across the country. Many Covid patients have died from lack of access to oxygen or ventilators, working-class families have struggled to secure enough food, and school closings have pushed children into work.

The economy contracted 12 percent last year in the country’s worst recession in three decades – the second worst downturn in Latin America after Venezuela.

Voters interviewed in Lima, the capital, this month appeared to reunite their shared frustration with the system.

“We used to trust our managers somewhat. But now nobody believes any of them, ”said Teresa Vásquez, 49, a housekeeper.

Ms. Vásquez had supported one of the youngest presidents, Martín Vizcarra, even though the legislature had charged him with corruption charges.

Then she learned that last year he had been secretly vaccinated with additional doses from a clinical trial in Peru that researchers were distributing among political elites.

That year she had limited her options to two candidates who looked clean. But less than a week before the election, I was still struggling to make up my mind.

“It’s the same with all of my family,” she said. “Nobody knows who to trust.”

Opinion polls released ahead of Sunday’s vote showed that two out of a half-dozen candidates could move on to a likely runoff election in June.

Candidates, who received around 10 percent of the vote in recent polls, include Pedro Castillo, a socially conservative union activist who promised last week to invest heavily in health care and education, and Keiko Fujimori, a right-wing opposition leader and the Daughter of former authoritarian President Alberto Fujimori, who has said she would end the bans on Covid and fight crime with an “iron fist”.

This year’s election coincides with the 200th anniversary of Peru’s independence. But instead of celebrating, many Peruvians question the validity of their democracy and market economy model.

Even before the pandemic upset the country, support for democracy in Peru had plummeted to one of the lowest levels in the region, with the military considered the most trustworthy, according to a survey by the Latin American Public Opinion Project (2018-2019) Institution.

Since the last parliamentary elections resulted in a divided government five years ago, there have been constant clashes between the legislature and the executive in Peru as opposition lawmakers tried to impeach two presidents and Vizcarra dissolved Congress and called new parliamentary elections, to implement reforms.

Three former presidents spent time in jail during the bribery investigation, including a candidate in this year’s election. a fourth killed himself to avoid arrest; and a fifth, Mr. Vizcarra, one of the most popular leaders of recent times, was indicted in November.

His successor, who had been in office for less than a week, is being investigated in connection with the fatal shooting of two young men during protests that led to his resignation.

One reason for the country’s endemic corruption is that political parties often trade their loyalty to presidential candidates for backroom agreements and are often bound by special interests.

“Political parties are no longer a means of representing citizens,” said Adriana Urrutia, a political scientist who heads the pro-democracy organization Transparencia.

“There are parties in the current parliament that represent the interests of private universities that face penalties for failing to meet minimum standards,” she added. “There are parties that represent the interests of illegal economies such as illegal logging and illegal mining.”

Some candidates adapt their messages to the growing skepticism about democracy.

Mr Castillo, the union activist, has promised to replace the Constitutional Court with a court elected “by popular mandate” and said it would dissolve Congress if it blocked a proposal to replace the Constitution. Rafael López Aliaga, a businessman and member of the ultra-conservative Catholic group Opus Dei, said Peru must prevent a left “dictatorship” from consolidating power and promised to imprison corrupt officials for life.

Ms. Fujimori abandoned efforts to moderate her platform on her third presidential bid. She has promised to excuse her father, who is serving a sentence for human rights abuses and a transplant.

The constant political turmoil has made analysts worried about the country’s future.

“I think the scenario that is coming is really terrifying,” said Patricia Zárate, the lead researcher for the Institute of Peruvian Studies, an electoral organization. “Congress knows they can easily indict the president, and it is easy for the president to shut down Congress. Now it will be easier to do it again. It’s daunting. “

The reporting was contributed by Julie Turkewitz in Bogotá.