Pedro Castillo, a rural teacher turned politician, has been named Peru’s president-elect six weeks after a polarizing vote in which his right-wing rival, Keiko Fujimori, alleged electoral fraud.
The official count — released Monday and more than a month after the second round — showed that Castillo, whose supporters included the poor and rural citizens of Peru, defeated Fujimori by just 44,000 votes. She is now facing trial on charges of corruption.
“On behalf of my family, I would like to salute the electoral authorities… and also salute the political parties that participated in this democratic celebration,” Castillo told hundreds of supporters gathered at the headquarters of his Peru Libre (Free Peru) party in Lima.
“Dear compatriots, I bring here an open heart to all of you,” he declared from the balcony after Jorge Luis Salas, head of the election jury of the Jurado Nacional de Elecciones (JNE), announced Castillo’s victory in a short virtual ceremony.
Hundreds of supporters who had spent weeks outside JNE headquarters supporting Castillo broke out in celebration at the news. He will be sworn in on July 28.
“Finally we have a president,” Rosa Huaman, a 27-year-old Castillo supporter, said among the crowd, who chanted, “Yes, you can!”
Mariana Sanchez of Al Jazeera, who reports from Lima, said that although the new president had not previously held political office, he had built a reputation as a good negotiator as well as a union leader.
“He has no experience in governing,” she said. ‘But he won the elections neatly and transparently. Democrats in the region have welcomed him.”
Castillo campaigned for an office that promised to improve the lives of Peruvians battling a recession exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic. The country has been crushed by the coronavirus, about a third of people now live in poverty and the disease exposes the shortcomings of Peru’s public health system. The per capita death rate from COVID-19 in Peru is the highest in the world.
The son of farmers, Castillo has promised to revise the constitution and raise taxes on mining companies, though he appears to have softened previous calls for the nationalization of mining and natural gas companies. Peru is a major producer of copper, gold, silver, lead and zinc — and its mining generates 10 percent of the national gross domestic product (GDP) and one-fifth of corporate taxes.
Historians say Castillo is the first person from outside the elite to become president, despite the economic gains of the past 20 years.
“There are no known cases of a person unrelated to the professional, military or economic elites who reach the presidency,” Cecilia Méndez, a Peruvian historian and professor at the University of California-Santa Barbara, told a radio station.
Castillo worked as an elementary school teacher in his native San Luis de Puna, a remote village in Cajamarca, a northern region of Peru, and was best known for leading a national strike four years ago before running for president. He surprised many in April when he took the lead in the race for president – Peru’s fifth in three years after a series of crises and corruption scandals.
Fujimori, a former congressman accused of taking money from scandal-tainted Brazilian construction giant Odebrecht (now known as Novonor) to fund two previous failed presidential bids, ran with the support of the business elites. Under Peruvian law, the case against Fujimori would have been suspended until after her term in office had she become president.
Fujimori said on Monday she would accept Castillo’s victory after accusing him of electoral fraud without providing any evidence.
The United States, the European Union and 14 election missions determined that the vote was fair. The US called the election a “model of democracy” for the region.
Steven Levitsky, a political scientist at Harvard University, told a radio station that Castillo will become “very weak,” and in a sense in a “very similar” position to Salvador Allende when he came to power in Chile in 1970 and to Joao Goulart, who became president of Brazil in 1962.
“He has almost the entire Lima establishment against him,” said Levitsky, an expert on Latin American politics.