Peruvians will head to the polls to choose a new president Sunday as the country is battered by record-high coronavirus infections and deaths, an increase fueled by the spread of a more contagious variant that surfaced in Brazil and is now wreaking havoc across South America.
Election officials are pressing ahead with the vote despite the COVID-19 surge, expanding the number of polling sites and extending voting hours in an attempt to curb contagion, contending that postponing the election could be risky in a country routinely rocked by political instability.
Neighboring Chile decided Tuesday to postpone a vote for delegates to a constitutional assembly, while Ecuador is pressing ahead with a second round presidential vote Sunday, decisions that will test the political systems of three countries where the pandemic and social tensions have put citizens on edge.
“The political situation is so heated, the situation is so frail, that postponing the vote could carry the risk of people taking again to the streets and going back and doing the same thing” they did last year when the president was forced to step down, said Dr. César Ugarte, epidemiologist from the Alexander von Humboldt Institute of Tropical Medicine of the Universidad Peruana Cayetano Heredia.
He said the public health measures at voting sites in Peru can work, but to avoid turning elections into another superspreader event “the population must also do its part and comply with the rules of social distancing and with the use of masks.”
Three candidates hit with COVID-19
Peru’s presidential election comes five months after Congress ousted popular former President Martin Vizcarra, a decision that set off violent protests at a time when the country had one of the world’s highest per capita COVID-19 mortality rates. Within the span of a week, Peru had three different presidents. Analysts say proceeding with a vote is necessary to stave off further instability.
In a country marred by corruption, the pandemic has deepened mistrust in politicians. Peru was roiled in February by a scandal known as ”Vaccinegate” after it became public that Vizcarra and dozens of high-ranking officials had been vaccinated secretly against the coronavirus. Only 1% of Peru’s population has been fully vaccinated, and another 1.8% percent has received just one dose.
A new wave of COVID-19 cases, largely fueled by the spread of the P.1 variant, is pummeling Peru, which last week reached new records in daily virus deaths and infections. The pandemic is putting pressure on the country’s health system, leaving patients without access to intensive care beds.
“Our hospitals have reached their limits in capacity. Intensive care beds are all full, and sick patients only have access to a waiting list,” said Dr. Ernesto Bustamante, former head of the National Institute of Health. “Many people are being treated at their homes, and from there, they ask to be placed on the waiting list for a bed in the intensive care unit. Unfortunately, there are those who do not get to their turn and die at home.”
There is no clear frontrunner in the presidential race, with seven of the 18 candidates polling within range of becoming one of the final two that will face off in a second round vote set for June 6.
Three of the 18 presidential candidates have recently tested positive for COVID-19. On Sunday, candidate George Forsyth, a former professional soccer player and ex-mayor, suspended his public events. Julio Guzmán and Ciro Gálvez previously announced they had also been infected.
Extended polling hours, outdoor voting
The surge in cases comes after the government lifted lockdown measures in March in hopes of restarting the battered Peruvian economy, which contracted by 11.1% last year, according to data of the National Institute of Statistics and Information.
In an attempt to protect voters from the virus, electoral authorities have quadrupled the number of voting booths by adding new polling stations, many of which are outside.
Election officials also extended polling hours, calling voters to show up at specific times based on the last digit of their identity card number over the course of 12 hours, instead of seven. Some 25 million Peruvians are eligible to vote and required to do so by law. Failure to show up is punishable by a fine that ranges from 22 to 88 soles, or about $6 to $24, a substantial amount in a nation where most work in the informal sector.
“They have taken a lot of measures to avoid overcrowding,” Ugarte said.
Several other countries in Latin America have held elections during the pandemic, including Bolivia, the Dominican Republic and Ecuador. Argentina, Mexico, Honduras and Chile are all slated to hold votes later this year. With the exception of Chile, most of those countries are far behind in their vaccination campaigns.
Chile has surpassed many wealthier nations in vaccinating its population, but as variants spread, travel increases and many relax safety measures, the country is experiencing a dangerous uptick. Like Peru, Chile is also grappling with social tension while balancing pandemic precautions. In 2019, violent protests erupted after an increase in the Santiago metro fare, which then morphed into a larger movement against inequality and corruption. Chileans voted last year to write a new constitution, and were slated to select the delegates in April as part of the first step in that process.
“It has been a very difficult decision, but we must take it,” President Sebastian Piñera said recently. “We do this with conviction for what is best for Chile and Chileans.”
‘Postponement would probably lead to a deep political crisis’
Three different presidents occupied Peru’s presidential palace in November 2020 as violent demonstrations left at least two dead and dozens injured.
Peru’s current president, Francisco Sagasti, was appointed by Congress on Nov. 16 after his two predecessors -- Manuel Merino and Vizcarra-- were pushed out. Vizcarra became chief of state in March 2018 after former President Pedro Pablo Kuczynski resigned amid a corruption scandal.
Despite the risks of holding a general election in the midst of a new wave of infections, Sagasti has so far rejected any suggestion that the vote should be postponed, and analysts said it is highly unlikely that he will change his mind.
“Unlike Chile, which is considering postponing the elections, we are in such a heated political situation that a postponement would probably lead to a deep political crisis, much greater than the one we are experiencing right now,” said political analyst Bruno Rivas.
Such a decision could even be used to accuse Sagasti of trying to manipulate the situation because his party is doing poorly in the polls, several experts said.
“Sagasti came into power basically on a mandate to make sure the elections happen on time,” said Nicolás Saldias, analyst for Latin America and the Caribbean at The Economist Intelligence Unit. “He is the interim president and his job is to make sure that the elections happen and that there is a peaceful transition of power.”
The race is so heated that the top candidates are virtually tied. According to an Ipsos poll published Sunday by the El Comercio newspaper, the center-right candidate Yonhy Lescano is leading with 10%, followed by Verónika Mendoza of the left-wing Together for Peru party (9%) and right-leaning economist Hernando de Soto (9%).
Tied in fourth place at 8% are Forsyth and Keiko Fujimori, the daughter of former President Alberto Fujimori, who is in her third bid for the presidency running under a right-wing populist platform. Rafael López Aliaga and Pedro Castillo, both with 6%, trail not far behind. The poll has a 2.5% margin of error, which means the top five candidates are within the range of a technical tie.
Tug-of-war between president, legislature
The inability of any presidential candidate to capture a majority also extends to the various congressional candidates, which bodes ill for putting a quick end to the turmoil seen during the past four years, said Diego Moya-Ocampos, principal analyst for Latin America at IHS Markit.
“A fragmented Congress increases the risk of the next president being impeached in Congress,” as was the case with Kuczynski and Vizcarra, Moya-Ocampos said. “And given that the legislative elections are taking place simultaneously with the first round of the presidential election, then it is highly likely that Congress will be fragmented as well.”
A divided Congress could also make it harder to get things done in the legislature, Moya-Ocampos said.
Peru has been immersed during the last five years in an escalating tug-of-war between the executive and the legislative branches of government, with Congress making frequent use of its impeachment powers and the presidency strong-arming Congress into granting its support in key matters through confidence votes that can lead to the dissolution of parliament.
“These two weapons have been used irresponsibly many times,” said analyst José Carlos Requena, adding that the next president is likely to face the same issue.