VoxEU Column Economic history Politics and economics

Historical legacies shaping the 2021 Peruvian presidential election

The 2021 victory of Pedro Castillo as president of Peru is commonly attributed to the support of poor, rural, and indigenous groups. However, profound historical factors also played a role. In particular, areas where colonial rule was more ruthless in the 18th century – as measured by the expected returns to office, the tax burden, and the intensity of anti-colonial rebellions – exhibited higher support for Castillo in 2021. Interestingly, this support is not visible for other leftist and Marxist parties in the elections of 1980 and 1985.

In June 2021, leftist candidate Pedro Castillo – newly elected president to Peru – edged out a victory over Keiko Fujimori in the second round of Peruvian presidential elections. In a crowded first-round field, Castillo, a self-labelled Marxist from the Free Peru party (Perú Libre, or PL) came out first with just 18.9% of the votes among 19 candidates. Two months later, a mere 40,000 votes were the difference between him and Fujimori.

In his acceptance speech, Castillo credited the ‘Deep Peru’ (el Peru Profundo) for his electoral victory and promised a government that would rectify historical injustices arising from the arrival of Spanish conquistadores and their regime based on the exploitation of the indigenous population. According to Peru Libre’s manifesto, this Deep Peru was “forged in the Peruvian Andes and Amazonian regions” and had been systematically abandoned by both right- and left-wing parties.

The reference has been generally interpreted in the media as referring to the rural and poorer parts of Peru, where the majority of the indigenous population live. This is factually correct; for example, Figure 1 shows that the district-level vote for Castillo is strongly correlated with the share of the population speaking indigenous languages in the latest census of 2017.

Figure 1 Share of population speaking indigenous languages, 2017, (L) and district vote share for Pedro Castillo in second-round 2021 presidential elections (R)



Source: Own construction based on district-level data from INEI (Census 2017) and second-round vote shares from ONPE.

However, the ethnic foundation of Castillo’s support is only part of the story. To start, today’s distribution of indigenous groups is the product of migration and assimilation processes, themselves shaped by historical institutions and events. That is, the current distribution of indigenous groups is only a proximate cause behind support for Castillo, and more fundamental ones may be at play. For instance, prior work from Poland (Charnysh 2015), Russia (Rozenas and Zhukov 2019), the US (Acharya et al. 2018) and Germany (Homola et al. 2020), to name a few, shows how contemporary political behaviour is intimately shaped by historical events.

My research on the historical roots of underdevelopment in Peru (Guardado 2018) shows how colonial policies such as office-selling allowed extraction-bent officials to rule Peruvian provinces in the 18th century. The result of this policy was an increase in the tax burden of the population and of violent uprisings against colonial officials in response. Moreover, these effects persisted in subsequent centuries via greater political violence (including by Maoist guerrillas) and patterns of ethnic segregation in the affected provinces. Today, these provinces also exhibit lower trust and political participation (measured as turnout).

Indeed, extending my argument to the current election, it does appear that Castillo’s electoral support is higher in locations where colonial governance in the 18th century was worse. As shown in Figure 2 Panel A, the electoral support for Castillo is higher (and lower for Fujimori) in areas where a higher percentage of the population had to pay head taxes to the Crown ca. 1754 (Panel A). Because mestizos and Spaniards were generally exempt, these taxes exclusively targeted the indigenous population. Overtaxing and abuse were common. Head taxes would remain in place well into the 19th century, after independence.

Figure 2 Historical correlates of Castillo and Fujimori’s vote shares in 2021 



Source: Guardado (2018) and ONPE. Each scatter dot represents the mean of the outcome of interest within each bin plotted against the mean value of the difference in office prices within each bin after. The solid line shows the best linear fit using OLS. All specifications include geographic controls and clustered standard errors at the historical province level.

More directly related to bad governance is the result in Panel B, which shows how provinces with a higher price paid for office in the 18th century were less likely to support Fujimori. Because office prices reflect the expected (and illicit) returns to be made from the position, it reflects areas where colonial officials were bent on extraction and colonial officials were ‘worse’. To avoid concerns that prices might be capturing other factors – aside from rulers’ quality – I focus on the difference or gap in office prices during European wars relative to that during peace, when the Spanish Crown was less financially pressured and more careful in their selection of overseas officials.

Conversely, Panel C shows that Castillo drew more support from areas where the indigenous population had higher repartimiento quotas – a form of forced sales of merchandise at markup prices, effectively a tax – and another source of abuse of the indigenous population in colonial times. Finally, Panel D provides some evidence of how resistance by the indigenous population in the form of rebellions against colonial officials is also associated with greater support for Castillo. 

Beyond boosting Castillo’s claim that his support runs deep in Peru’s history, these relationships are remarkable for other reasons. First, it is not often the case that events three centuries ago have a strong relationship with a given candidate’s voting shares today. Second, as shown in Figure 3, the same historical traits have little explanatory effect on the vote shares of other leftist (even Marxist) candidates during the key presidential elections of 1980 and 1985.  In none of the panels are the correlations either statistically significant, in the expected direction, or of the magnitude observed in 2021. In other words, it does not appear to be the case that provinces historically targeted for exploitation are simply a bastion of extreme leftist or Marxist parties.

Figure 3 Historical correlates of other leftist candidate vote shares in 1980 and 1985  


Source: Guardado (2018), Albertus (2020), and JNE.
Note: Each scatter dot represents the mean of the outcome of interest within each bin plotted against the mean value of the difference in office prices within each bin after. The solid line shows the best linear fit using OLS. All specifications include geographic controls and clustered standard errors at the historical province level.

Rather, the voting patterns seen in the 2021 Peruvian election suggest that either the candidate or the very special circumstances surrounding the country resonated with this electorate in ways not seen in other cases. Other factors certainly contributed to Castillo’s victory, such as Peru’s fractionalised party system, the population’s exhaustion with endless political corruption, and the extent of the economic crisis brought about COVID-19 (Munoz 2021). Yet, the role of these colonial legacies should not be overlooked.

Looking forward, it remains to be seen what Castillo’s government can do to benefit this constituency. If history provides any clue, it is that these patterns have endured through centuries, suggesting they might be very difficult to change.


Acharya, A, M Blackwell and M Sen (2018), Deep roots: How slavery still shapes Southern politics, Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Albertus, M (2020), “Land reform and civil conflict: Theory and evidence from Peru”, American Journal of Political Science 64(2): 256–74.

Charnysh, V (2015), “Historical legacies of interethnic competition: Anti-Semitism and the EU referendum in Poland”, Comparative Political Studies 48(13): 1711–45.

Dell, M (2010), “The persistent effects of Peru's mining mita”, Econometrica 78(6): 1863–903.

Guardado, J (2018), “Office-selling, corruption, and long-term development in Peru”, American Political Science Review 112(4): 971–95.

Homola, J, M M Pereira and M Tavits (2020), “Legacies of the Third Reich: Concentration camps and out-group intolerance”, American Political Science Review 114(2): 573–90.

Muñoz, P (2021), “Latin America erupts: Peru goes populist”, Journal of Democracy 32(3): 48–62.

Rozenas, A, and Y Zhukov (2019), “Mass repression and political loyalty: Evidence from Stalin’s ‘terror by hunger’”, American Political Science Review 113(2): 569–83.

735 Reads