Peru could become the next Venezuela, but there are some reasons to hope that it won’t | Opinion

·4 min read

Will Pedro Castillo, the radical leftist who is likely to be declared winner of Peru’s June 6 elections, turn his country into a new Venezuela? It would be naive to rule it out, but there are some reasons to hope that he would not be allowed to create a Venezuela-style dictatorship.

Castillo, until recently a little-known radical leftist teachers union leader, has tried to present a more moderate image in recent days. But, judging from his past activism and his Perú Libre party’s statements, he could be one of the most extreme leftist presidents elected in Latin America in recent decades.

In its document “Perú Libre: Ideas and Program,” which Castillo presented before the April 11 first-round election as his political platform, the party describes itself as “a leftist socialist organization.” It adds that “to be leftist, one has to embrace the Marxist theory” and Marxism-Leninism.

Castillo presented a lighter version of his platform for the June 6 second-round vote, and has recently said that “I’m not a [former Venezuelan President Hugo] Chávez supporter, nor a Communist.” But he has not broken with his party, and calls for a constitutional assembly to draft a new Constitution that his critics see as a copy-and-paste version of the Chavista playbook to grab absolute powers.

Castillo is leading in the official count by a mere 0.4 percent of the vote, and his rival, Keiko Fujimori, claims fraud. But electoral observation missions from the Organization of American States, the European Union and Peru’s Civil Transparency Association say they have found no evidence of fraud. The United States and the 27-member European Union have said the election was fair.

If Castillo is officially declared president-elect, the key factor to determine whether Peru will follow Venezuela’s steps will be the success — or failure — of his plan to convene a constitutional assembly to draft a new Constitution.

Castillo vows to call a referendum to convene a constitutional assembly — something that most constitutional lawyers say would be unconstitutional. People who have talked with Castillo’s close aides in recent days tell me that the referendum is one of the issues he considers non-negotiable, and that he is determined to carry it out.

Problem is, most experts agree that Castillo’s proposed referendum would be illegal, because under Article 206 of Peru’s Constitution, all initiatives to reform the Constitution “must be approved by Congress.”

Castillo has only 37 seats in Peru’s newly elected 136-seat Congress. He is unlikely to get even close to the 66 votes he would need to have Congress call a referendum on the Constitution, or the 87 votes he would need to have Congress write a new Constitution without the need to go to a referendum.

Anibal Quiroga, a constitutional lawyer who teaches at the Catholic University in Lima, told me that if Castillo goes ahead with his plan to convene a referendum on the Constitution without congressional approval, “it would amount to a coup d’etat.”

“Castillo wants to call a referendum because they know that they don’t have the votes in congress,” Quiroga told me. “But it would be a coup, just as if the military were to grab congressional powers.”

Ernesto Alvarez, dean of the San Martin de Porres University’s Law School in Peru, agrees that Peru’s Constitution clearly states that only Congress can call a referendum to change the Constitution.

“Castillo’s plan is to gather millions of signatures, so as to put political pressure on Congress to convene a referendum,” Alvarez told me. “The key thing will be to create a united front of democratic forces that keeps him from swaying public opinion in that direction.”

That won’t be easy. Castillo got only 19 percent of the vote in the first-round election, but he won the No. 1 spot for the second round because a wide field of candidates split the right-of-center vote.

Much like has happened before in Bolivia, Ecuador, Nicaragua and other countries in the region, the big egos of right-of-center politicians fragmented their votes, and allowed a radical leftist to rise to power. If Castillo becomes Peru’s next president, his pro-democracy rivals will only have themselves to blame if they don’t come together to lawfully prevent him from staging a coup against Peru’s democracy.

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