Since the year 2000, Peru has had the longest period of democracy in the country’s history. As a Latin American nation, the South American country struggled to achieve a stable democracy for years. The past 21 years have been synonymous with economic growth and development. However, for many, the latest election has brought this period of success to an aching end. On July 28th, 2021, president Pedro Castillo took office. For the first time in 21 years, a self-called populist, Marxist, Leninist, far-left, and socialist candidate was democratically elected as president. His outspoken thoughts and policies quickly became a severe sign of concern for the country’s democracy. Citizens wonder what would be the end of this Castillo era in the history of Peru. Will his years in the government finalize with a decline in Peru’s democratic system? Is Pedro Castillo’s victory really a severe threat to Peruvian democracy?
Based on what I perceive as a Peruvian citizen, Pedro Castillo’s election is an extremely severe sign of democratic erosion. Millions of Peruvians are experiencing an excessive fear of the current political situation. Fear that, just like Venezuela, Peru will become an authoritarian nation. The question is, why? Why has Castillo’s presidency been such a big deal for a significant part of the population?
The most dangerous fact is that Castillo fits perfectly with the description of a populist leader. According to Lee, populism is a moralistic discourse . It intends to polarize society and divide it into two antagonistic camps; the silent majority vs. the corrupt elites. In all of his campaigns, Castillo constantly divided society into two groups and blamed the elites for the country’s problems. He promised to enshrine a nation “for the people” and included himself as a part of that diminished group who has been unfairly treated by democracy. His central slogan, “no more poor people in a rich country,” struck a chord with the deeply seated peasantry’s resentment and grievances. Castillo’s strategy was to exacerbate class divisions by constantly using polarizing rhetoric. As Jean Muller describes , the us vs. them speech is the first “red flag” to identify a populist leader; Castillo swings that red flag with pride.
Muller also identifies these leaders as candidates who conceive themselves as the only solution to fight for what the vast majority is going through . He states that populist leaders appeal to emotions and drive supporters by fear. Castillo portrayed himself as the hero of the poor. He was the only candidate who understood their situation and hence the only one capable of fighting for them. His strategy was to activate resentment towards the elites by appealing to people’s emotions. During Castillo’s inauguration speech, he reassured his populist rhetoric by saying: “This is the first time our country will be ruled by a peasant. Someone who belongs to those who have been oppressed for so many centuries. The pride and pain of our country runs through my veins.” Not only did he rise to power by using polarizing rhetoric, but he has made government an ongoing campaign where the elites are still blamed for all the chaos and disaster of the poor.
Muller also describes populist leaders as ones who have no clear government plans . In the case of Castillo, his campaign was based on multiple promises with no roots in logical arguments. His party detailed plans to expropriate mining projects into the state and incorporate laws to regulate the media. His economic proposals go against capitalism; a precondition for democracy, according to Robert Dahl . This author states that economic development is key to the success of democracies. Growth is directly related to a free market: a system that Castillo refuses to follow. The newly elected Peruvian president proposed that the state should take control of industry and participate directly in the economy. What calls the attention is the candidate’s inability to make clear the methods to how he will achieve his goals. Castillo’s call for nationalization of resources seems to be more passion than logic. He refused to give interviews during his campaign and avoided any interaction where questions could be asked. Whenever he was put on the spot, he contradicted himself and struggled to make a clear point. Watching Castillo’s interviews has been a “worldwide shame” for many Peruvians.
His rhetoric also fits the description of a villainous demagogue described by Jenifer Mercieca because he has never expressed accountability for his words . His declarations are rooted in ambiguity, and no conversation was voluntarily offered. In addition, he is a candidate with no prior experience in politics. As a former elementary school teacher, Castillo has never been in the political arena before. How can someone successfully lead a country if he has no knowledge about fundamental issues of governing?
However, what gave Pedro Castillo a spark in the elections was his echoed promise to change the Peruvian Constitution. Jean Müller states that populism is a threat to democracy mainly because it weakens the rule of law . He explains that candidates rise to power through elections, and after winning office, they manipulate the electoral process and change the rules of the game. Castillo challenges a political dynasty because of his promise to create a new Constitution “for the people.” He promised to implement sweeping changes in Peru, making it his primary policy goal to write a new Constitution. Having a president who insists on changing such an essential element of democracy is concerning. Nancy Bermeo  states that backsliding consists of changes that enhance a decline in the quality of democracy. Castillo’s desire to change the Constitution is to initiate an era of economic reform where the government acquires more control.
After breaking down Castillo’s character, it is evident that he represents a threat to Peruvian democracy. Even though he won democratically, the vast majority of his supporters were poor and lower-middle-class people with deficient education levels who could easily be persuaded by populist rhetoric that appears to better them off. His supporters applaud the success of one of their own; however, they are blinded from understanding the threat Castillo imposes on democracy. Although Pedro Castillo won, his election produced as much fear as it did hope, but only time will define whether Peru’s fragile democracy stays afloat in the face of authoritarianism. Frances Lee, “Populism and the American Party System: Opportunities and Constraints, Perspectives on Politics; Cambridge Vol. 18, Issue 2, (Jun 2020).  Jan-Werner Müller, What Is Populism?  Robert Dahl, On Democracy.  Jennifer Mercieca, “Dangerous Demagogues or Weaponized Communication,” Rhetoric Society Quarterly,
Vol 49, Issue 3, 2019. Bermeo, Nancy. “On Democratic Backsliding.” Journal of Democracy 27, no. 1 (January 2016): 5-19.