Politics and Agriculture in Peru - A New Breakdown?

After 20 years of relative political and economic stability, Peru is seeing the foundations of its economic boom shaken by domestic politics. The elections held in March this year made one thing clear: the population does not feel close to any candidate. Faced with a second round, the anti-vote is the prevailing law, and agriculture plays a fundamental role in an exchange of populist ideas and improvised government plans by two candidates who each represent two opposing political views, right and left. 


In the early 1990s, Alberto Fujimori, an unknown university professor at the Universidad Nacional Agraria La Molina, an agronomist engineer who had previously been rector of that institution, came to power after competing with Mario Vargas Llosa, a later Nobel Laureate for his literature, who failed to win the voters' confidence. The country he received had just suffered one of the most serious hyper-inflations recorded in the second half of the 20th century, and terrorism by armed groups Sendero Luminoso and MRTA was expanding to urban areas, spreading violence through attacks, such as car bombs, kidnappings and assassinations. The difficult access to common necessities were a common denominator in the lives of Peruvians who had started a new democracy just 10 years earlier, after the military dictatorship that lasted from 1968 to 1980. During this time the country was severely polarised and with a notable economic deficit. Subsequent democratic governments failed to overcome the difficulties and poor fiscal policies ended up plunging Peru into what is known as the "lost decade" during 1980s. 

It is in this context that Fujimori emerged, the image of a Japanese descendant and presidential candidate who visited remote villages in the Andean landscape at the wheel of a tractor as part of his political campaign. He quickly managed to identify with the villagers in rural areas and became engraved in the minds of Peruvians. Once elected, Fujimori opted to establish a new constitution adopting a neoliberal vision; privatising public companies, changing the currency and promoting a new vision of agriculture. This new vision would give rise to the development of a new agrarian policy in 2000 under his third mandate with the colloquial name of "Chlimper Law", in honour of the then minister of agriculture. This third mandate, which was highly questioned and considered unconstitutional by the opposition parties, was justified by the government by changing the constitution after reelection, to officially make it a second term. The law quickly attracted domestic and foreign investors, granting tax benefits and labour hiring facilities that quickly gave the necessary impetus to turn Peru into a major world player in agricultural exports, such as asparagus and table grapes. For its part, the armed conflict against terrorist groups had been successfully managed, achieving the capture of the main terrorist leaders and dismantling these criminal organisations to a large extent, thus achieving the social peace so longed for by the Peruvian people. At the end of 2000, when there were serious accusations of corruption against him, Fujimori took advantage of his visit to the APEC summit to send his resignation by fax and take refuge in Japan. Later, he was captured in Chile, from where he was extradited to Peru and is currently in prison. This dark chapter in Peruvian politics would usher in a new golden era in agriculture, which would grow over the next 20 years and become a source of national pride. 

The Profiles

With an agricultural sector that contributes 6% of the national GDP and employs 30% of the labour force, agriculture has always been high on the political agenda. After many years of endemic corruption, weak institutions, poor governance, growing inequality and political instability (last November set a new record; three presidents in one week), Peruvians are eager for change. This year's election presented a round with no less than 18 presidential candidates. The elections showed a strong radicalisation and polarisation in politics and society. None of the candidates managed to win more than 13% of the overall votes. Candidates with political experience did worse than expected, because many voters felt that they were already too much part of a system that needs drastic reform. The two candidates with the most votes were Pedro Castillo, from "Peru Libre", and Keiko Fujimori from the "Fuerza Popular" party. School teacher and union leader Pedro Castillo was not considered as a potential winner within the left-wing options until alst week. On the right, several candidates were in the running, among them the "Fujimorismo", a political movement attributed to the followers of Alberto FUjimori, now led by the daughter of former president, Keiko. In the same view as candidate Castillo, Fujimori represented a candidate who was not seen as a major possibility; however, the wide range of candidates on offer greatly divided votes, making both parties contenders. Both parties, or rather individual figures, now face a run-off in a divided country polarised between two fronts; a left-wing with radical overtones and a right-wing who is suspected of corruption. Most Peruvians have a great dislike for both candidates and are thus faced with an impossible choice. Many see Castillo as a communist with links to terrorist organization Shining Path. He is in favour of nationalization of mining, energy, infrastructure, censorship of the press, ending "immoral behaviour" (homosexuals, abortion, etc.) and redistributing wealth, amongst others by seizing the pension of workers in the formal sector to be divided among all Peruvians. Hence, there is a lot of fear among the middle classes that Peru might end up as Venezuela under a Castillo government. On the other hand, in the eyes of many Keiko represents everything they dislike about the political system: corruption, favouring allies and the elite, protecting the disastrous monopolies/oligopolies in some sectors and a lack of empathy with the people. A large amount of people in Lima plan to vote for Keiko; not because they like her, but because they fear Castillo. However, a majority of the people who have almost nothing to lose, including many of the 70% working in the informal sector and most people in rural areas , plan to vote for Castillo.

Keiko Fujimori took over the leadership of the party her father founded. Politically, she became first lady after her parents divorced during her father's term in office in the 1990s. She has subsequently served as a congresswoman and is currently at large on charges of corruption. Her case is currently under investigation. For his part, Pedro Castillo, like Alberto Fujimori, evokes that anonymous candidate who channels popular discontent. Originally from Chota, on the north-eastern slopes of the Andes, Castillo worked as a teacher, gaining notoriety as a leader of the national teachers' strike in 2017. He has also been a “rondero”, a security arm of peasant communities that helped in the fight against terrorism and has been president of the Sindicato Único de Trabajadores de la Educación por el Perú (SUTEP), a heavy player among the left-wing unions, with links to the political arm of Shining Path.

Proposals for the agri-food sector

The debates held as part of both campaigns have shown a frightening lack of technical aspects, both candidates have presented concepts lacking in arguments and have opted for speeches in the populist order. On the left-wing, Castillo claims that he will use 70% of the income that the international companies would be forced to leave in Peru, for health, education and agricultural sectors. He also calls for a second "agrarian reform", alluding to the reform carried out by the military dictatorship that expropriated land from the then large landowners, and proclaims the ban of imports of products that Peru produces, such as potatoes and maize. Likewise, he postulates the expansion of the agricultural frontier and the development of river basins using labour from convicts. In terms of sustainability, he maintains that he will reincorporate ancestral wisdom and the search for balance.

For her part, the “Fuerza Popular” candidate proposes the creation of a special fund to reduce the price of agricultural inputs such as fertilisers; she also declares that she will promote programmes for small farmers that arose during her father's term of office; she will also build reservoirs and irrigation channels for agriculture. In addition, she has declared that she would bring improved seeds to Peru and buy 5,000 tractors for the use of small and medium-sized farmers.

Both candidates are so close to each other in the polls, that it is impossible to predict who will win. The anti-vote against economic models dominates the electoral landscape and on the eve of the elections on June 6, the discourse has taken other paths, leaving behind rural areas and agricultural workers to take up issues such as security and infrastructure in urban areas.

Regardless of who is elected, the agricultural sector faces serious long-standing problems; among them, the lack of infrastructure and an agrarian law that is not accepted by different parts of the sector, both major issues that endanger the viability of an industry that has been performing well for more than 20 years. While the outlook is uncertain, one thing is clear, investment in the country has come to a standstill. 75% of investors are opting to postpone their investments, 4% indefinitely and 34% will wait until after the elections to make a decision. The political sum only highlights the general discontent of a nation and a sector that has, to a large extent, pulled itself up by its own bootstraps. The need to incorporate a fair legal framework, accompanied by technically sound proposals, investment promotion and the incorporation of technology prevails; otherwise, the additional uncertainty generated by national politics could have serious consequences not only at the level of the agricultural industry but also at a social level in Peru.

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