Religious party seeks gains in Peru's legislative elections

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A member of the Israelites of the New Universal Pact religious group, holds out her right arm to maintain her balance as she walks through a market on the muddy banks of the Amazon River, in Alto Monte de Israel, Peru, Sunday, March 28, 2021. The political arm of the messianic group, the Agricultural People's Front of Peru, known as Frepap, has emerged as a potential favorite in Sunday's April 11th legislative elections. (AP Photo/Rodrigo Abd)

JOSE CARLOS MARIATEGUI – On the banks of the Amazon River, in a village without electricity or drinking water, Andrea Rodrigo makes the yuca flour that her family sells in markets along Peru’s remote borders with Brazil and Colombia.

The 21-year-old Peruvian woman and seven of her neighbors recently paddled for half an hour down the vast river to two Indigenous communities where they put up posters for their political party, the Agricultural People’s Front of Peru.

Known as Frepap, it is the political arm of a messianic religious group called the Israelites of the New Universal Pact, which merges Old Testament Christianity with Andean culture. Adherents believe their leader, Jonás Ataucusi Molina, is the reincarnation of Jesus Christ and the Amazon is the promised land or the “land without evil,” leading the faithful to populate remote forests bordering Brazil, Colombia, Ecuador and Bolivia.

Amid widespread disgust with traditional politicians and an extremely fragmented electorate, Frepap has emerged as a potential favorite in legislative elections Sunday, when Peruvians will also cast ballots for president. Observers say its surprising growth as a political force has to do with the roots it has put down and the proselytizing it has done in remote communities and poor neighborhoods, as well as weariness with seemingly endless corruption scandals among the establishment parties.

All of Peru’s former presidents since 1985 have been accused of corruption, with some imprisoned or arrested in their mansions and one taking his own life before police could capture him. Despite being prosecuted, one is currently running for president and another is seeking a seat in parliament. In the last 12 years, 57 former governors and 2,002 ex-mayors have been prosecuted or are fugitives. An official audit in 2019 found that corruption was consuming $17 million a day in Peru, enough to feed the country’s poor.

“I would like to see more members of Congress from Frepap, teaching people not to steal,” Rodrigo said as she adjusted her hair covering. Hanging on the wall of her hut was a painting of a blue fish, the symbol of the party created in 1989 by the late shoemaker Ezequiel Ataucusi Gamonal, founder of the religious movement and father of its current leader.

In a January 2020 special election called after President Martin Vizcarra dissolved congress, Frepap stunned prognosticators by winning 15 of 130 seats to become the third largest bloc in the country's fragmented legislature.

In the year since, Frepap has maintained its image as “separated from the scandals … and without attitudes that reflect religious fanaticism or radical conservatism,” said anthropologist Carlos Ráez, who has studied the party.