The Financial Express

Pedro Castillo -- the leftist President of Peru

Pedro Castillo, the newly elected President of Peru Pedro Castillo, the newly elected President of Peru

Pedro Castillo, a 51 year old former rural primary school teacher and the son of illiterate peasant turned politician was sworn in as President of Peru on July  28, following the narrowest of electoral victories in a bitterly divided country. Wearing a collarless indigo jacket and his typical wide-brimmed palm straw hat, Castillo  pledged to govern  the country "with the people and for the people'.

That Castillo's inauguration took place on the 200th anniversary of Peru's independence from Spanish colonial rule is hugely symbolic. His rise to power has been hailed as a victory for Peru's downtrodden. In his inaugural speech he called for Peru to retake control of its natural resources, re-negotiate its free trade agreements and boost social spending.

In his inaugural speech he also said, "This country is founded on the sweat of my ancestors. The story of this silenced Peru is also my story".  For many Peruvians he has now become  the symbol of those very people ignored in the country's political life.

In a highly symbolic gesture, he said he would not govern from the capital's Presidential Palace, built on the site of the house of Francisco Pizzaro, the Spanish conquistador of Peru, who founded Lima in 1535. Instead, his office will be in Lima's convention centre.

He will give up the palace to the ministry of cultures so that the palace can be used to display Peru's history, from its origins to today. He has also said  that he would not enrich himself, vowing to only draw the salary equivalent to what he was paid as a school teacher.

Castillo is also a rural farmer and union leader and hails from the northern Andes region of Peru mostly inhabited by indigenous people. There are gold mines in the region but people are impoverished there. Indigenous people have always remained at the margin in terms of receiving deficient public services while the country boasted being a great economic success story of Latin America over the last two decades.

Peru has historically been run by an oligarchy composed of a small number of super-rich families who control most of the country's wealth.  This oligarchy used to have very close connections with  other interest groups  which include   military, business and financial interests and politicians. These groups collectively now constitute the present day power elites in Peru who wield enormous power so much so that they have unlimited access to the Presidential palace to get things done in their way.

Castillo's election victory has shaken the very foundation of present day Peruvian power  elite that emerged in the wake of the 1968 military coup that saw the routing of the old oligarchic order.

Castillo is the first peasant to become president of Peru. Until now there has not been any person unrelated to the power  elite who made it to the presidency in Peru. That makes Castillo completely new to Lima's corridors of power and  completely unconnected  to the power elite. That has created a very high degree of anxiety, even fear  among  members of the Peruvian power elite. 

Castillo was nominated as  the presidential candidate for  the  Marxist-Leninist  party, Peru Libre,  without having a long association with the party and its  radical history. His election campaign slogan - "No poor people in a wealthy country", targeted inequality in the country and promised to push for a new constitution to replace the Fujimori dictatorship era constitution enacted in 1993. Castillo has called for a constitution that "has the colour, smell and flavour of the people". These are a part of his party's leftist priorities.

He further talked about "el pueblo", the people, emphasising  education and health care for them would be a right in Peru not the interests of the deeply entrenched business and other  interest groups of the Peruvian ruling elite . Peru has the second largest deposit of copper in the world. Castillo has promised to hike taxes on miners to use the revenues from the mining sector to improve public services including education and health care.

Castillo's intended radical political and economic reform agenda split the country between those who support his pledge to overhaul politics and the economic system to address poverty and inequality and others backed by the power elite spreading the fear that Castillo would do away with the neo-liberal economic policy which immensely benefitted these people, even democracy. In fact, the chief of the armed forces resigned a few days before Castillo's swearing in because he has refused symbolically to acknowledge Castillo as commander-in-chief.

His opponents have tried to portray him as a left wing extremist with ties to communist guerilla groups which he denies. Castillo is a social conservative and a religious person. He is  not a liberal  but  a leftist with a social and economic agenda.

On assuming the office of presidency, Castillo called for unity and rejected claims that he would follow models from other countries like Cuba and Venezuela. He also moderated his stance on his economic policy by declaring that he would not nationalize mining.

But a day after being sworn in as Peru's president, Castillo has appointed a far left Congressman and member of his party, Guido Bellido, 42, a native of the Cusco region, as Prime Minister. Many consider Bellido as an apologist for Shining Path, the guerilla group that waged a bloody war against the Peruvian State in the 1970s and 1980s. Like Castillo, Bellido is also a social conservative and considered to be very close to Vladimir Cerron, a Cuban educated neurosurgeon who is the secretary general of the party and a very powerful figure in the party.

He also appointed Pedro Francke, a former World Bank economist, considered as a moderate, as finance minister.  Many within the party including  Cerron, consider Francke as too much of a representative of Peru's status quo and opposes Francke's appointment. However, Prime minister Bellido twitted his full support for Francke.

Defending his choice of the cabinet, Castillo twitted "Our cabinet belongs to the people, it answers to the people". He further added "Our commitment is to Peru and to no other interest than to dedicate each and every one of our efforts to build a more just, free and dignified country. We will not disappoint your trust".

Castillo's party, Peru Libre has only 37 seats in Congress notwithstanding his very narrow victory by only 44, 263 votes out of 18.8 million votes cast.  Now Prime Minister Bellido and his cabinet will require the approval of Congress. Castillo, therefore, has had to make alliances and assembled a coalition of parties from the centre, liberal left and far left of his party. Even so, he does not have a majority in Congress.

Castillo faces many aggressive oppositions from many fronts including a very hostile mainstream media which is now aligned with the right and very critical of his policies. The Lima political establishment and the business sector would like to see him removed from the office.

Peru also has a very strong right wing political movement like  Brazil's Bolsonaro type far right. While they are not numerous but very powerful and supported by the mainstream media, they are  already gunning for him.

There is a provision in the Peruvian constitution that enables to remove a president on the ground of "physical and moral incapacity"  by a simple two thirds majority in Congress. Over the last five  years the use of this provision resulted in four presidents removed before Castillo assumed the presidency. In fact, Castillo is the fifth president in as many years.

Castillo is aware of the challenges he faces from his opponents, especially from the right. It is speculated that the appointment of Bellido as prime minister is a strategy to confront Congress which is made up of his opponents. If Congress refuses the prime minister a vote of confidence, that will pave the way for the president to appoint a new cabinet and dissolve Congress. In fact, over the last five years Peru  also has had two Congresses.

Therefore, dissolving Congress will enable Castillo to speed up the process to set up a Constitutional Assembly to draft a new constitution which is one of his main objectives. In fact, this is the easiest and the speediest way to achieve this objective which is unlikely to be achieved through normal channels.

If that is the strategy of Castillo, the president of Congress has hinted that members of Congress will hear the prime minister first rather than reject him outright. Also, Congress no longer wants to be seen as the source of creating political instability in the country.

As politics is an art of possibility, it is possible that Congress may preempt a dissolution by impeaching Castillo. And that is a pretty easy process, it only requires two thirds of parliamentary votes or more precisely 87 votes. The Peruvian Congress has already a  large reservoir of experience of deposing presidents using this method. In reality, there is no reason needed, just the right number of votes to depose a president.

Given the political climate now prevailing  in Peru with the deeply entrenched power elite,  it is not clear whether Castillo can govern the country and achieve the social and economic reforms he has promised to Peruvians. In such an uncertain political environment the increasing talk of either impeachment of the president or the dissolution of Congress is gaining momentum.

Castillo's unconventional background can work in his favour, but that does not guarantee his political survival and his redistribution agenda could generate serious backlash from the power elite leading to open conflicts. Peru's economy is already facing a serious crisis resulting from the Covid-19 pandemic.

Peru's existing economic and political system remains grossly unfair and such a system always leads to political and economic crises. In a historical context, the Peruvian state has primarily been used as an instrument  for plundering the nation and  public on behalf of the very rich and powerful.

Failure to carry through his reform and redistributive agenda will only further deepen the existing economic and political crises causing further polarisation of the society. That will  create  an environment  to open the way for more radical undemocratic forces  like the far right  radicals with the support of the power elite to capture state power.

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