Peruvian democracy faces its biggest challenge yet

On April 11, 2021, Peru achieved a dubious distinction that has yet to receive much public attention: for the first time in the history of global electoral democracy, the total of blank and null votes exceeded the amount of votes received by any single candidate running to serve as a country’s head of state.


Source: Michael Robinson Chavez, the Washington Post

On April 11, 2021, Peru achieved a dubious distinction that has yet to receive much public attention: for the first time in the history of global electoral democracy, the total of blank and null votes exceeded the amount of votes received by any single candidate running to serve as a country’s head of state.

Sometimes referred to as “protest” votes, a total of 3,313,086 votes cast in the first round of Peru’s elections were discarded as either blank or null—markedly more than the 2,724,752 votes received by Pedro Castillo or the 1,930,762 votes received by Keiko Fujimori (who will face off in the fast approaching second-round runoff election to be held this Sunday, June 6).  

If we include the 7.5 million Peruvians that abstained from voting altogether—and paid fines ranging from USD $6 to USD $80 for their absenteeism—a whopping 43 percent of Peruvians elected to abstain, voted blank, or invalidated their votes.

Such high levels of blank and discarded votes are extremely rare. Even in noteworthy circumstances when blank and null votes received as high as 16 to 18 percent of votes cast, such as Ecuador in 1988, Albania in 1996, and Brazil in 1998, the total of ineligible ballots had never even come close to surpassing the votes received by a leading candidate or party in a general or presidential election. 

So, why did so many Peruvians cast a blank vote, or intentionally nullify their ballot?

The answer lies in a gradual and constant erosion of public trust in Latin American political institutions over the past two decades. A Gallup poll surveying ten South American countries between 2009 and 2016 found that 76 percent of Peruvians did not have confidence in their national government, marking the highest level of such documented distrust in the region. Another study conducted in May 2020 found that only 20 percent of Peruvians had confidence in their unicameral congress, 21 percent had confidence in the country’s political parties, and up to 59 percent said that they would accept a complete closure of Congress by the executive in circumstances of crisis.

This erosion of trust is a byproduct of the breakdown of political parties in Peru since the 1990s. In 2003, the political scientist Steven Levitsky, writing with Maxwell Cameron, noted that “parties are among the least credible democratic institutions in Latin America today, yet democracy without them is nearly inconceivable. The Peruvian experience offers stark evidence of the indispensability of parties as mechanisms of representation.”

Still, the drawbacks of weak political parties and the mediocracy that has characterized Peruvian politics has in some ways been advantageous for the country, enabling the Andean nation to escape two major problems that have troubled its Latin American neighbors.

First, the country’s lack of viable political parties has generated candidate-centered elections, shifting the focus from partisan ideologies to the leadership capabilities and agendas of individual candidates. Additionally, a focus on individual candidates has granted Peruvians a break from the polarized left-right dichotomy that has become the focal point of politics in countries like Brazil, Chile, Venezuela, Argentina, and Ecuador. As such, Peru has not seen massive swings from the right to the left across its presidential terms; instead, Peruvian presidents have brought more mild shifts, vacillating only slightly between the center-left and center-right.

Second, Peru’s weak political base has prompted more conservative—and usually, less risky—macroeconomic policies, while still implementing social programs aimed at reducing poverty and inequality. It is no wonder that Peru’s GDP rose nearly five-fold from USD $50 billion in 1999 to USD $226 billion in 2019, even as its Gini inequality coefficient fell from 54.8 in 1999 to 41.5 in 2019 (in South America, only Uruguay has a lower Gini score). This center-right economic model also had its flaws: most notably, it has proven itself unable to evenly distribute economic prosperity throughout the country, leaving Peru’s interior highly underdeveloped, while Peru’s public education and healthcare systems remained grossly underfunded and ill-equipped. Still, this economic model helped Peru avoid the economic collapses that have beset the country’s more economically adventurous peers like Venezuela, Argentina, Brazil, and Ecuador.

Yet, Peru now appears poised to depart from its historically-centrist path, as the two candidates vying for the presidency on June 6 will likely move the political scale to either the far-right or the far-left. With as many as 21 percent of voters still undecided, it remains impossible to determine which direction the country will turn.

The challenges that lie ahead

Whoever is elected as Peru’s next president will inherit a multitude of issues: a devastated healthcare system, a slowing economy, looming public debt, rising levels of poverty and unemployment, and a restive populace. Moreover, the rising tide of polarization that has emerged between the first and second electoral rounds is likely to result in some pushback, perhaps in the form of popular protests following Sunday’s vote.

The biggest challenge of all lies at the intersection of Peru’s weak party system and the country’s unicameral Congress of the Republic. Every Peruvian president since 2001 has had to contend with their party’s weak representation in Peru’s congress, often leaving them at an impasse without the necessary support to advance any serious socioeconomic or political reforms. The new president will face the same congressional limitations, since neither Castillo nor Fujimori leads a party with a legislative majority.

At this moment, it is hard to predict what policies either candidate would implement if victorious on Sunday. Peruvian presidents have a history of drastically shifting policy priorities away from their campaign promises once elected, as was the case for Alberto Fujimori in 1990, Alejandro Toledo in 2001, and Ollanta Humala in 2011. For now, both Castillo and Fujimori are only looking to reach the finish line; whoever wins is likely to moderate their position in order to minimize the risks of an economic collapse and political unrest, which have only been exacerbated by the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic—which, as indicated in updated figures released this week by the government, has killed an estimated 180,764 Peruvians, giving Peru the worst per capita death rate in the world.

Neither candidate has presented a cohesive plan to combat COVID-19, only rarely indicating whether their administration would focus efforts on short- or long-term solutions, such as mass vaccination campaigns or investments in healthcare infrastructure to prevent a third wave, respectively. Consequentially, Bruno Seminario, a Peruvian professor and researcher at Lima’s Universidad del Pacífico, said in a recent interview that “the problem is that neither candidate has people capable of executing the necessary political and social changes [required to defeat the pandemic].”

The next Peruvian president, therefore, will face a multitude of challenges, but one thing is certain: increased polarization and a radical shift to either the left or right will only further jeopardize the country’s social and political climate. It would be wise for the victor of the June 6 election to pursue trans-partisan and ideological alliances in order to maintain the longest period of uninterrupted democratic rule in Peruvian history.

Hari Seshasayee is a Global Fellow at the Woodrow Wilson Center, and a trade advisor with ProColombia, a Colombian government agency. The views expressed are the author’s and do not reflect those of the Colombian government.

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