But the tensions and passions at play in both countries extend far beyond the Andes. Their economies have painfully contracted during the coronavirus pandemic, which has exposed the underlying vulnerabilities and inequities of both societies. Some voters in Peru, where coronavirus infections are once more surging, found themselves lining up Sunday both to cast a ballot and to secure tanks of oxygen for critically ill relatives. In Ecuador, spiraling unemployment and a dramatic spike in violence against women formed the backdrop to the vote.
Public dissatisfaction and impatience with the political establishment is rife. In Peru, where ballots were still being tabulated Monday, it is expected that one of the leading vote-getters in a crowded first-round field of presidential candidates will be “no one.” Millions of Peruvians cast their vote without leaving a mark as an act of protest. Rolling political scandals and corruption cases saw four presidents and two Congresses come and go within the past half-decade. Popular anger reached a boiling point when it emerged that hundreds of high-level Peruvian officials and well-connected VIPs secretly jumped the line for coronavirus shots ahead of thousands of front-line medical workers late last year.
“The pandemic has left a state with holes in it and enormously frustrated citizens, who reject politicians, and are not very interested in the elections,” Fernando Tuesta, a political science professor at Lima’s Pontifical Catholic University, told the Guardian. “Add to that the highest number of candidates in living memory, who don’t spark passion, and show more weaknesses than strengths.”
A similar unease was on show in Ecuador. “I don’t feel that either of the candidates represents me — both make me nervous,” Alexandra Muñoz, 43, an economist in Quito, told the Los Angeles Times ahead of the vote. “The middle class has been ravaged.”
The second-round runoff reflected a more familiar contest in the region. Guillermo Lasso, who clinched victory with some 52 percent of the vote, campaigned as a pro-business, religiously minded — he’s a member of the ultraconservative Catholic institution Opus Dei — reformer who would steer the country’s floundering economy to surer footing. His opponent, the leftist technocrat Andres Arauz, was seen as a proxy for former president Rafael Correa, a polarizing populist who ruled for a decade until 2017 but now lives in de facto exile in Belgium under the specter of corruption charges at home.
Arauz pledged payments of $1,000 to a million households, even if that meant further indebting the country and tearing up an earlier bailout agreement with the International Monetary Fund. News of Lasso’s victory cheered markets, with some of the country’s recently restructured bonds rising to near-record highs.
But Lasso hardly has an emphatic mandate. First, he benefited from the disaffection of the country’s Indigenous voters, who saw their preferred candidate, Yaku Perez, narrowly miss out of the runoff amid allegations of irregularities. Perez’s call for his supporters to cast their ballots blank probably tipped the scales in Lasso’s favor. Ahead of the second-round vote, Lasso also eschewed ideological grandstanding in favor of a more inclusive message.
“He completely changed strategy. Instead of attacking Correa and Arauz, he tried to get across a message of inclusion and he reached out to sectors of society who wouldn’t normally vote for him, like the LGBT community,” Johanna Andrango, an Ecuadoran political scientist, told the Financial Times. “He started using TikTok. Some 40 percent of the electorate in Ecuador are millennials and centennials and he had to reach them.”
Given centrist and leftist opposition in the national legislature, Lasso may struggle to pursue a more laissez faire approach. “To get the votes, he had to cede a lot of his political and economic positions, so he’s going to have to offer something to a lot of sectors,” Sebastian Hurtado, a Quito-based political risk consultant, told the Wall Street Journal. “That could complicate his agenda for economic liberalization.”
The results in Peru suggest an even more polarizing clash. Pedro Castillo, a self-proclaimed Marxist schoolteacher and union leader from the country’s northern interior, emerged from relative obscurity to secure the most votes in the race. He supports rewriting the country’s constitution, spending 10 percent of gross domestic product on health care and education and nationalizing Peru’s energy industry. He also is an opponent of abortion and same-sex marriage — espousing a mix of socially conservative values and far-left politics anathema to the country’s upwardly mobile urban elites.
Castillo’s potential opponent at the time of writing was Keiko Fujimori, daughter of former dictator Alberto Fujimori, who is imprisoned on charges of human rights violations during his time in office. Fujimori herself is the subject of an ongoing criminal investigation into alleged money laundering and obstruction of justice. Polls placed her as the most widely rejected candidate among voters, though her name recognition and the support of an enduring pro-Fujimori right-wing base kept her afloat.
“But a surprise left-wing contender like Castillo could channel all the conservative votes towards her,” noted Spanish daily El Pais. Castillo’s opponents have smeared him as the inheritor of the militant legacy of the Shining Path terrorist group. Fujimori, meanwhile, had to clarify that her vowed “strong-hand” policies did not entail a return to the era of her father’s dictatorship.
Whatever the scenario for the second round, Peru’s future president faces a deeply fragmented political landscape in the country’s unicameral Congress, which also was elected Sunday. Experts suggest that, amid ongoing economic pain and the crisis of the pandemic, Peru’s period of turmoil and uncertainty may only deepen.
“I think the scenario that’s coming is really frightening,” Patricia Zárate, the lead researcher for the Institute of Peruvian Studies, a polling organization, told the New York Times. “Congress knows they can impeach the president easily and it’s also easy for the president to close Congress. Now it will be easier to do again.”