Peru’s new president has plunged it into instant political crisis

Pedro Castillo’s nomination of leftwing radicals for cabinet posts shows he is no mood to 

Michael Stott, Latin America editor

Peru’s president Pedro Castillo, right, with prime minister-designate Guido Bellido © Ernesto Arias/AP

Peru has suffered the world’s worst per capita death toll from coronavirus, experienced one of the deepest pandemic-induced recessions and been torn apart by a bitter election campaign.

To this unenviable cocktail, its new president has added a deep political crisis on his first full day in office.

Pedro Castillo, a primary school teacher and small farmer from a remote Andean village, had never held elected office before snatching a narrow victory in June’s presidential election.

The ultimate political outsider, his candidacy alarmed the wealthy but delighted the have-nots. 

Castillo’s slogan “No more poor people in a rich country” resonated among millions left behind by uneven economic growth in the world’s second-biggest copper exporter.

Castillo’s favourite props in a highly professional campaign that belied his humble origins were a large yellow pencil, symbolising education, and a trademark Stetson hat. 

He rode to vote on horseback.

But behind the modest school teacher with no political track record lurked Vladimir Cerrón, the Cuban-educated leader of the Marxist-Leninist party Free Peru, which adopted Castillo as its presidential candidate not long before the election.

Castillo was constantly questioned about how he might govern if he won: as a hard-left revolutionary or a consensus-seeking moderate? 

His responses were contradictory and confused.

The original Free Peru manifesto, pledging sweeping nationalisation, gave way to a vaguer and less radical programme. 

Cerrón disappeared from view during the election. 

Castillo stopped giving interviews, while moderating his stance and playing down the hardline views of Cerrón.

The devastation caused by coronavirus gave his campaign extra potency. 

Strict lockdowns crippled the economy but failed to contain infections. 

Hospitals were swamped. 

Almost 200,000 people have died so far from Covid-19 in a country of 32m, and economic output shrank 11.6 per cent last year.

Castillo won by the slimmest of margins, just 44,000 votes. 

His defeated conservative rival Keiko Fujimori fought the result for six weeks, alleging fraud, but international observers and Peruvian authorities concluded that the vote had been fair.

Peru’s mainstream left had sought to build bridges with Castillo prior to his inauguration on Wednesday. 

It hoped to put together a broad coalition to help the inexperienced new president win support for a moderate programme of change in the fragmented Congress, where he lacks a majority.

Thursday night’s chaotic events appear to have put paid to that initiative. 

Castillo’s decision to name Free Peru radicals to key posts outraged moderates and conservatives alike and set his administration on a collision course with the legislature.

Almost as soon as the names were announced, there was uproar. 

Peruvians from different parts of the political spectrum lined up to denounce the choices, with particular opprobrium reserved for prime minister-designate Guido Bellido because of his sympathies with a guerrilla movement whose war on the Peruvian state cost 70,000 lives. 

The foreign minister is a former Marxist rebel with close ties to Cuba.

Castillo must seek a vote of confidence from Peru’s unicameral Congress for his unconventional cabinet, and some legislators fear a trap. 

If they reject his choices twice, the president can dissolve Congress and call fresh elections. 

Since legislators cannot run for a second term, they would in effect be signing their own death warrant.

Congress, however, has a powerful weapon of its own. 

Legislators may remove a president from office for the ill-defined offence of “moral incapacity”, a device that has been used to trigger the ejection of two of Castillo’s predecessors.

Either way, serious political turbulence beckons. 

Investors who liked to say of Peru that “regardless of the crazy politics, the economy grows fine” are discovering that the politics matters after all.

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