If the elected leaders of long-established democracies like the US and Israel can question the workings of their electoral system, why can’t others of less-established ones?
Exactly one month has passed since 17.4 million Peruvians cast their ballot in the country’s run-off presidential elections. But the country still has no president. The losing candidate, Keiko Fujimori, a former congresswoman and daughter of former President Alberto Fujimori, has refused to concede, claiming that her opponent Pedro Castillo’s party, Peru Libre, committed voter fraud. And now it transpires that Peru’s version of Rasputin is back: a recent investigation revealed that Vladimir Montesinos, a former long-standing head of Peru’s intelligence service who is in jail for crimes against humanity, has been pulling strings from behind the scenes (and behind bars) to try to get Fujimori proclaimed victor.
But it doesn’t appear to be working — at least not if the intended goal is to win the election for Fujimori. Her team’s legal challenges have so far led nowhere. A call by former high-ranking military officers for a military coup has also failed. Peru’s National Elections Jury (JNE) has dismissed all of Fujimori’s campaign’s appeals against the electoral outcome. International observers from the Organization of American States (OAS) and the European Union (EU), among others, have ruled out any irregularities. And the United States and European Union have publicly praised the electoral process.
But the endless succession of appeals serve another purpose: they buy Fujimori time. And time is something she desperately needs rights now. If she doesn’t win this election, she will probably end up back behind bars, like her father and “Tio” Montesinos. Perhaps even more importantly, the ongoing legal challenges help to cement and normalise the idea among a large section of Peru’s population, particularly in the capital, Lima, that Castillo won the election through fraudulent means, despite all the evidence to the contrary. One recent poll showed that 31% of Peruvians thought the claims were credible.
“Rasputin” Is Back
Ironically, the only side that has actually been caught committing fraud so far is the Fujimori campaign. In recent days recordings have been leaked of telephone conversations between Montesinos, who is widely regarded as the power behind the throne in President Alberto Fujimori’s government, which ruled Peru from 1990 to 2000, and a former military commander discussing bribing three members of the National Electoral Tribunal (JNE) to secure Keiko’s victory. But the plan didn’t pan out.
“If we had done things the way we had initially proposed, we wouldn’t be in this shitty situation,” says Montesinos in one of the recordings. “They [Keiko’s campaign team] can’t do anything now. I’m just trying to help, because if they don’t win, they are screwed: the girl (Keiko) will end up in jail and the other man (her father, Alberto) will die where he is (also in jail). That is the situation.”
When it comes to bribing officials, Montesinos — who is sometimes referred to as Alberto Fujimori’s “Rasputin” — has form.
In 2000, secret videos recorded by Montesinos himself came to light showing him bribing elected congressmen into leaving the opposition and joining the pro-Fujimori group in Congress. Six years later, he was sentenced to 20 years’ imprisonment for crimes against humanity. He was also found guilty of operating a vast web of illegal activities, including embezzlement, graft, gunrunning, and drug trafficking. In 2016 he received an additional 22 years of prison time for the forced disappearance of a professor and two students in 1993. They were among thousands who were forcibly disappeared during Peru’s internal conflict (1980-2000).
Now, Montesinos is hatching plots from behind bars. While it is unlikely that he will be able to actually get Castillo’s narrow electoral victory overturned, the longer he and the Fujimoris can delay Castillo’s inauguration, the more difficult it will be for Castillo’s government to govern once it does take power.
“It’s a danger for democracy,” said the Peruvian political scientist Eduardo Dargent, calling Ms. Fujimori part of a growing “denialist global right.” “I think in the end Keiko will leave the stage. But a very complicated scenario for the next government has been built.”
A Worrying Trend
This is not the first time that Keiko Fujimori has accused her opponents of electoral fraud. She did exactly the same thing in 2016. But this time she and her campaign team have been bolstered by recent attempts by both Trump and Netanyahu to do the same. But whereas they were able to do so while in office, Fujimori has had to mount her campaign to disrupt or even sabotage the election from the opposition benches.
In most countries that would be a major handicap. But Peru has certain political and social idiosyncrasies that have worked in Fujimori’s favour, including the financial, political and business elite’s innate fear of being governed by anyone who doesn’t come from within their ranks or social class. Mr. Castillo’s ties to more radical politicians and his proposal to change the Constitution to give the state a larger role in the economy have merely fanned those fears.
Peru may not be the only Latin American country to see accusations of electoral fraud paralyse the political system in the coming years. In Brazil the far-right president Jair Bolsonaro stated last week that he will refuse to leave power if he loses next year’s presidential election to “fraud”. In a press conference on July 2, he declared:
“I am giving advance warning to the judges of the Supreme Court. I will give the presidential sash to whoever beats me at the polls fairly, but not with fraud.”
Like Trump, Bolsonaro is a deeply polarising figure in a deeply polarised country. Like Trump, Keiko and Netanyahu, he has every reason to want to cling to power. He faces multiple criminal investigations, including into the systematic destruction of the Amazon under his watch and his government’s deadly mismanagement of the pandemic. The latter inquiry has already unearthed evidence of serious irregularities. Bolsonaro himself has been accused by a whistleblower in the health ministry of doing nothing when warned three months ago that senior officials were taking bribes to purchase overpriced doses of an Indian-made vaccine, Covaxin.
The revelations have sparked a wave of protest across Brazil, which has in turn prompted a brutal crackdown by security forces. In the wake of the scandal Bolsonaro faces record disapproval while still maintaining a solid base of supporters. But that base may not be enough to see off former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva in the October 2022 general election. Lula left office in 2010 as the most popular president in Brazilian history, boasting approval ratings of about 80%. A recent poll revealed that Lula, now out of prison after the case against him collapsed, could beat Bolsonaro in a first-round vote if the election were held today.
“In a 2016 interview, Bolsonaro said, ‘The mistake of the dictatorship was to torture and not kill.’ His son, Rep. Eduardo Bolsonaro, and many supporters have repeatedly called for ‘a new AI-5,’ referring to the notorious 1968 military decree that heavily curtailed political freedoms and institutionalized torture, inaugurating what became known as the ‘Years of Lead.’
It’s worth recalling that Bolsonaro’s first term in govenment was largely the result of a soft coup. As an exposé last year by The Intercept revealed, the now-disgraced Operation Car Wash criminal investigation, partly orchestrated by the US Department of Justice, led to the downfall of Dilma Rousseff’s government and the imprisonment of Lula just as he was preparing to run for office again, leaving the coast clear for an anti-establishment populist like Bolsonaro to win the 2018 election with a landslide.
Last month, former center-right President Michel Temer voiced concerns that Bolsonaro would attempt a coup if he lost the next election. To prevent such an outcome, Temer said that supporters of Brazilian democracy needed to work on improving relations with the military, which is for the moment largely allied with Bolsonaro. Bolsonaro has spent recent months strengthening his base among local police rank and file (though that support may be fading) and “replacing wavering allies with loyal shock troops in key military, intelligence, and law enforcement positions,” reports The Intercept.
Brazil, like Peru, could be in for a rocky period. There can be little doubt that Fujimori and Bolsonaro have drawn encouragement and inspiration from Donald J. Trump and Benjamin Netanyahu’s recent accusations of electoral fraud. After all, if the elected leaders of long-established democracies like the US and Israel can question the workings of their electoral system, what’s to stop others from less established ones?
But in a region as politically volatile and economically polarised as Latin America, the potential risks are huge. The devastating economic fallout from the pandemic has already intensified the eternal struggle between the haves and the have-nots. High inflation is exacerbating the struggles of the region’s poorest people. Political violence is on the rise again in Colombia while in Peru, and perhaps soon in Brazil, accusations of electoral fraud risk undermining democratic institutions that are still young and weak, leaving them more susceptible to a coup or an authoritarian turn.