Peru swears in new President Pedro Castillo

Former teachers’ union leader faces challenges of forming a cabinet, tackling COVID-19 crisis and uniting the nation.

Peru's President-elect Pedro Castillo waves upon his arrival at the Palacio de Torre Tagle, in Lima, Peru, on July 28 [Sebastian Castaneda/Reuters]

Peru has sworn in new President Pedro Castillo, a leftist former teachers’ union leader who already faces mounting challenges to build his government, tackle the coronavirus crisis and unite a deeply polarised country.

Castillo was sworn in at midday local time (17:00 GMT) on Wednesday in the capital, Lima, after weeks of uncertainty following a hard-fought June presidential runoff that saw him edge right-wing rival Keiko Fujimori by about 44,000 votes.

Three days of ceremonies are planned, starting with Wednesday’s inauguration on Peru’s independence day that will be attended by Spanish King Felipe VI, six Latin American leaders, former Bolivian President Evo Morales, and the United States education secretary, among others.

A military parade is planned for Lima on Friday.

Castillo, a 51-year-old former rural schoolteacher, becomes Peru’s first president in decades with no ties to the country’s political or economic elite and he has promised, among other things, to ensure there are “no more poor people in a rich country”.

“I swear by God, by my family, by the peasants, by the Indigenous peoples, by the ronderos (peasant patrols), fishers, professionals, children, adolescents, that I will exercise the office of President of the Republic,” Castillo said during the ceremony.

“I swear by the people of Peru for a country without corruption and for a new constitution.”

Expectations high

Reporting from Lima, Al Jazeera’s Mariana Sanchez said many Peruvians have high hopes that Castillo will be able to deliver jobs and healthcare, and continue the country’s coronavirus vaccine roll-out.

“There’s a lot of poverty in this country; millions and millions of Peruvians have lost their jobs. They already were living in poverty and so [there are] a lot of expectations for Pedro Castillo to change things around,” Sanchez said.

Peru has been hard-hit by the pandemic, recording the highest COVID-19 death toll per capita in the world. More than 195,000 people have died due to the virus in the South American nation to date, according to data from Johns Hopkins University.

The country, which has seen years of political upheaval and uncertainty, also remains deeply divided – especially after Fujimori for weeks alleged without evidence that the election was marred by widespread fraud.

A man holds a Peruvian flag on the inauguration day of President-elect Pedro Castillo in Lima, Peru on July 28 [Gerardo Marin/Reuters]

The daughter of former President Alberto Fujimori challenged several thousand votes, but Peru’s electoral jury ultimately rejected her complaints – and on July 19 Castillo was named the official winner of the vote.

In recent weeks, observers have questioned how Castillo, lacking any political experience, will govern.

His Free Peru party does not enjoy a majority in a fragmented Congress, holding 37 of the 130 seats, compared to 24 seats for Fujimori’s Popular Force party. An opposition-led alliance also won a vote on Monday to lead the Congress in what was viewed as a setback for Castillo.

‘Create alliances’

Michael Shifter, president of the Inter-American Dialogue think-tank in Washington, DC, told Al Jazeera that Castillo has sent contradictory signals about whether he plans to work with people who did not vote for him.

“He’s under enormous pressure but I think if he wants to be successful and deliver on what he has promised, I think he will have to be more moderate, more pragmatic, and be able to make deals and create alliances with those who voted against him in the election,” Shifter said.

As his chief economic adviser, Castillo has appointed World Bank economist Pedro Francke, seen as a moderating influence on his boss, who had initially said Peru’s mining and hydrocarbon riches – a mainstay of the economy – “must be nationalised”.

In an interview with the AFP news agency, Francke said that “we will not expropriate, we will not nationalise, we will not impose generalised price controls, we will not make any exchange control that prevents you from buying and selling dollars or taking dollars out of the country”.

Last month, Castillo also declared that “we are not communists, nobody has come to destabilise this country”.

Shifter pointed out that despite Castillo pulling back on the idea of nationalising key industries – he has instead taken a more moderate position and talked about raising taxes, Shifter explained – many in Peru remain concerned by his agenda and his party’s platform.

“He is somebody who is a complete neophyte. He is not well known. We don’t know who Pedro Castillo is other than he is a rural schoolteacher, a union leader,” he said.

“And so there’s enormous distrust and suspicion. My own view is that those fears are unfounded and baseless, but what I think people should be concerned about is simply inability to govern, lots of disorder and chaos and volatility in Peru, which also is not very good in terms of what needs to be done to address the needs of those who have been left behind.”

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies