LIMA, Peru — False claims of fraud in Peru’s presidential runoff election have unleashed a wave of racism in the bitterly divided country targeting the apparent winner, a far-left schoolteacher from the Andes, and his largely rural supporters.
Pedro Castillo has a lead of just 44,000 votes after election officials finally finished counting the 18.8 million ballots Tuesday. But his opponent, Keiko Fujimori, the daughter of imprisoned right-wing 1990s autocrat Alberto Fujimori, is falsely claiming “systematic fraud” — despite the fact that international electoral observers have praised the clean and transparent nature of the June 6 elections.
In an increasingly tense standoff, she now has a team of some of Lima’s most expensive lawyers trying to annul 200,000 votes, almost all from impoverished Andean regions where mestizo and Indigenous voters overwhelmingly supported Castillo.
The legal offensive is just the latest move in the racialized backlash to Castillo’s apparent victory, a shock in a society still shaped by the Spanish conquest and traditionally run by Lima’s white elite. It is also unprecedented in Peru and it mirrors former U.S. President Donald Trump’s “big lie,” his baseless claim that he won the November 2020 election even though courts tossed out his challenges.
Fujimori’s scare tactics have played to many Peruvians’ deep-seated fears of the left, rooted in the trauma once inflicted by the Maoist extremists of the Shining Path and the influx of one million Venezuelan refugees in Peru in recent years, fleeing the total collapse of an economy destroyed by the mismanagement and corruption of a leftist government.
Castillo, 51, ran on an overtly Marxist platform, although it is unclear how ideological the former union leader truly is. He hails from a remote village in a poverty-stricken region of the northern Andes, teaches in the local state school but also farms his own food, speaks with a strong regional accent, and sports a traditional straw hat.
In one typical case, the local news portal Sudaca published text messages between two white men in Lima declaring that they wished that Andeans would “die of hunger” and calling for a return of Alberto Fujimori’s program of alleged forced sterilizations of poor women.
Social media has been full of condescending comments and memes, depicting Castillo as a donkey, calling his voters “animals” and claiming that Andeans are too stupid to understand politics. Many of them have been compiled by a Twitter page satirically titled Right-wingers Campaigning for Pedro Castillo.
Sandra Rodríguez, an anthropologist who has herself received racist online abuse since the election, including being called a “disgusting Indian terrorist,” said the onslaught showed how contemporary Peru was almost as racially divided as South Africa during apartheid.
“There aren’t any laws but we are deeply segregated. Really, we’re still living in the colonial era in many ways,” she said. “I think many white, upper-class voters are struggling to understand what has just happened and have opted to construct an internal enemy, the Indian, the terrorist, the communist.”
She added that although Peru has previously, occasionally, had a mestizo president, this would be the first time that it had one who had not been “whitened” by education, marriage or a highflying career. Alejandro Toledo, who was president from 2001 to 2006, came from humble beginnings in the central Andes but earned a PhD from Stanford and is married to a Belgian anthropologist, although he was still mocked for his accent and skin color.
The inability to accept Castillo’s apparent victory has led his opponents to propose ways to stop him from taking office. One of Peru’s most right-wing television presenters urged supporters to occupy the presidential palace. Meanwhile, a former head of the armed forces, who is now the congressman-elect with the second highest number of votes, has called for the election to be annulled.
Mario Vargas Llosa, the Nobel-prize-winning author who was previously a lifelong opponent of Fujimorismo, once even comparing it to “cancer,” dismayed many of his Peruvian fans when he suggested that urban residents voted against “communism” because they were “better informed” than their rural counterparts.
Michelle Bachelet, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, condemned the racism as she called on Peruvians to accept the final result. “I repudiate hate speech and discrimination in all its forms, as it is unacceptable in any democratic society,” she said in a statement.
The electoral authorities have already thrown out many of Fujimori’s appeals, and Castillo appears all but certain to be officially declared president elect. Nevertheless, Fujimori, 46, is not expected to concede. Unless she acquires presidential immunity, she faces a money-laundering trial on charges that could carry a lengthy jail sentence.
As her supporters picketed the homes of the head of Peru’s electoral agency and national electoral tribunal, prosecutors called for her to be sent back to pretrial detention, alleging she had repeatedly contacted witnesses during the presidential campaign.
Despite Fujimori’s serious allegations — and the harm they are doing to Peruvian democracy — she has provided no evidence of the kind of widespread fraud that would reverse Castillo’s lead.
Instead, she has cited inconclusive social media posts and a handful of isolated, possible irregularities that, even if confirmed, would fail to prove the orchestrated manipulation she is claiming.
In one case, her lawyers claimed fraud at a voting station in the mountainous Puno region bordering Bolivia simply because the three locals who staffed it, who were chosen at random from the voting register, all have the same indigenous surname.
The three men, whose surname, Catacora, is common in their Aymara community, say they are not related and are now threatening to sue Fujimori for defamation. Many other citizens also selected under electoral law to administer the voting and now accused by Fujimori have also rejected her claims.
José Ragas, a Peruvian historian at the Catholic University of Chile, says this is not the first time that racism has marred a Peruvian election. Keiko Fujimori’s father, Alberto Fujimori, experienced it as a result of his Japanese roots during his successful 1990 presidential run.
“He knew how to play it to his advantage, selling this image of the technocrat, of the samurai,” said Ragas. “But it’s been normalized now. There are so many people starting their posts or messages with ‘I’m not a racist but...’ It’s a systemic racism that is now being weaponized by Keiko.”
Correction: This story originally said that Alejandro Toledo was president from 2000 to 2005. He was president from 2001 - 2006. We regret the error.