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Peru Heads To A Presidential Election With Two Controversial Candidates


The people of Peru are electing a new president today, and the vote comes at a time of deep crisis in that country. NPR's Philip Reeves says Peruvians face a choice between two highly controversial candidates at opposite ends of the political spectrum.

PHILIP REEVES, BYLINE: A couple of months ago, most people in Peru didn't know who this man is.


PEDRO CASTILLO: (Speaking Spanish).

REEVES: Today, he's in a neck-and-neck runoff to be their president. His name is Pedro Castillo. This is online footage of one of his final campaign rallies.


CASTILLO: (Speaking Spanish).

REEVES: "Peru needs structural change," he tells the flag-waving crowd.


UNIDENTIFIED CROWD: (Chanting in Spanish)

ANDREA MONCADA: OK, so he is a fairly new political figure in Peru.

REEVES: Andrea Moncada is a political analyst and opinion editor with Peru's El Comercio newspaper.

MONCADA: His candidacy was a bit of a surprise.

REEVES: Castillo's 51. He's a schoolteacher and leftist union activist from the Andes Mountains in northern Peru. Castillo's running as presidential candidate for the Peru Libre Party. Moncada says the party is Marxist but thinks he isn't.

MONCADA: I would say he is more of a populist.


CASTILLO: (Speaking Spanish).

REEVES: At the rally, Castillo is, as usual, wearing a big, wide-brimmed, white hat.

‪ZARAI TOLEDO OROZCO: The hat, yes - it's a symbol of authority within the rural world.

REEVES: Political analyst Zarai Toledo Orozco says Castillo often shows up on a horse to remind everyone he's a rondero.

OROZCO: Ronderos are part of patrol groups in rural Peru that are part of the peasant community and are sometimes even more respected than the state.


KEIKO FUJIMORI: (Speaking Spanish)

REEVES: This is Castillo's opponent. Keiko Fujimori has run for the presidency twice before and came close to winning. She's daughter of Alberto Fujimori, Peru's authoritarian president in the 1990s who's in prison for corruption and human rights abuses. Keiko is a right-wing former congresswoman who promises to rule with a strong hand. This election's happening at a time of turmoil. Peru's been hit by corruption scandals and political upheaval. Last November, it had three presidents within a week. The country's also suffering one of the world's worst COVID outbreaks.

OROZCO: In the regions of Peru, people are selling all their belongings to get oxygen, to get access to medicines, to get access to treatment.

REEVES: Zarai Toledo Orozco says this is impacting this election by undermining people's faith in government even more. Before the pandemic, Juan Banon worked in tourism. Poverty's soaring in Peru. Banon's now struggling to survive as a bricklayer.

JUAN BANON: (Speaking Spanish).

REEVES: Banon's not happy with the idea of either Fujimori or Castillo as president.

BANON: (Speaking Spanish).

REEVES: He associates her with government corruption and him with leftist extremism. Fujimori's opponents claim she's actually seeking the presidency to secure immunity from corruption allegations. Fujimori's counterattacked. Zarai Toledo Orosco says there are giant billboards all over Peru saying Castillo would turn the place into Cuba and...

OROZCO: Saying communism is going to kill you. Communism is coming for you - you know, playing from fear.

REEVES: Tensions are running high, says Andrea Moncada of El Comercio.

MONCADA: There's a lot of anger and distrust. It's an awful, awful election, honestly. I really want it to be over.

PAOLO SOSA-VILLAGARCIA: This is, like, the most polarized election that we have had since our return to democracy in 2001.

REEVES: Paolo Sosa-Villagarcia is from the Peruvian Studies Institute. He believes Castillo doesn't have enough support in Congress to enact radical change. Villagarcia's not optimistic about the outcome whoever wins.

SOSA-VILLAGARCIA: What we are going to observe is actually more chaos and more ungovernability than ever.

REEVES: That's what worries Juan Banon, the bricklayer. Above all, he wants peace and stability so that he can go back to looking after tourists and making a decent living again.

BANON: (Speaking Spanish).

REEVES: "We're at a crossroads," he says.

BANON: (Speaking Spanish).

REEVES: "And we just don't know what might happen." Philip Reeves, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Philip Reeves is an award-winning international correspondent covering South America. Previously, he served as NPR's correspondent covering Pakistan, Afghanistan, and India.