LIMA — On Sunday, Peru will choose its next president in the second round election runoff. Approximately two-thirds of voters have been forced to decide which of the two candidates constitutes the lesser evil, the arch-conservative Keiko Fujimori, or the schoolteacher with communist sympathies, Pedro Castillo.

Together they barely garnered 32% of votes in the first round. Pedro Castillo, head of the Perú Libre (Free Peru) party, had 19%, while Fujimori, daughter of the former, and currently jailed, president Alberto Fujimori, had barely 13%.

This paucity of votes reveals problems that have become structural in Peru: fragmentation, the gap between voters and the traditional parties, a crisis of governance and scandals that have led to four presidents over five years.

Peru's Congress, elected in that first round, contains 10 parties, and Castillo's Perú Libre has just 37 of 130 seats. For some years now, the legislature has been nothing but a grouping of parties that are formed and dissolved in line with shifting, personalized interests. That has made governing incredibly difficult.

Parliament has abused its powers to charge and oust ministers and presidents, waging a zero-sum game with the executive branch. Admittedly, the presidents barely helped as they themselves were personalities bereft of party support.

Neither candidate will strengthen democracy.

So democracy in Peru is in a bind. And that, we believe, is the most important criterion for evaluating the rival candidates. Unfortunately, neither has a clean, democratic slate.

Castillo represents a party that declares itself Marxist-Leninist and was formed around a personality who had to drop out of this race, having been convicted on corruption charges. That was Vladimir Cerrón, the former governor of the Junín province.

Castillo will probably emulate Mexico's Andrés Manuel López Obrador leadership style, using made-to-measure referendums to serve their own interests. One recently elected Perú Libre legislator, Guillermo Bermejo, vowed that once elected, they won't leave power. Castillo did not reprimand him. On press freedoms, the party espouses "the legacy of Lenin and Fidel," or Cuba's late dictator, affirming that "Marxism does not advocate press freedom but a press committed to its people's education and cohesion."

There are also charges and suspicions — some based on a recent inquiry by the newspaper El Comercio — that some party members have ties to the political arm of the half-defunct Shining Path, the Maoist guerrillas that fought the state in past years. Castillo emphatically denies such links. His economic program remains vague, but with a strong tendency toward nationalizations. Castillo's democratic credentials are thus weak, and unnerving.

Keiko Fujimori at an election rally in May 2021 — Photo: Denis Mayhua/dpa via ZUMA Press

Fujimori's are barely better. As daughter of the dictator Alberto Fujimori whom she has vowed to pardon if elected, she has had a highly charged political career. She has been adept at destabilizing governments using her party's clout. Today, she has promised a strong government, which is of particular concern coming from her. Nor are voters appeased by her ongoing prosecution over corruption.

Neither candidate will strengthen democracy, and both have espoused the populist narrative. Their social and economic recipes, while poles apart, promise public handouts, which usually serve to concentrate power. Most Peruvians share our concerns. Indeed, the candidates have been forced to swear an oath to respect democracy and human rights.

As Peru's preeminent novelist Mario Vargas Llosa has said, it's a choice between two ills, and we agree with him when he cites Castillo as the worst of the two, with a program that poses a direct threat to Peru's democratic institutions. He has threatened to dissolve parliament, restrict press freedoms and govern in the "name of the people" through referenda.

At least Fujimori has been active inside the institutions for decades. She has done it badly of course, as a consummate disrupter. But that was her field of action, and she stayed there. She will need the support of other parties to govern, and those that give it must clearly demand that she respect the institutions.

There is no reason for optimism in either case. Whichever candidate wins, the system's fragility will continue. He may attack the institutions, she may become a right-wing demagogue, and parliament will continue to undermine the executive. What Peru needs is a political renaissance to yield a modern, competitive and responsible political system. Neither Fujimori nor Castillo represent that, but the candidate of Free Peru is the bigger threat.

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