Dysfunctional system struggles to solve Peru's crisis

Reading time: 4 mins approx.

Read Dr Julio F Carrión's previous piece on Peru here

The acute political crisis that exploded in Peru in the wake of Pedro Castillo’s failed coup d’état on December 7, 2022, continues.

In late December, as protests started to mount, Congress voted to call for early elections, to be held in April of 2024. Protests intensified in January of this year and demands for immediate elections grew. The more than 50 demonstrators killed by the police heightened the crisis.

Many in Congress want elections as early as October 2023, and they pushed for a reconsideration. After some setbacks, Congress did approve to reopen the debate and, after this procedural vote, it failed to find enough votes to move elections to October. This meant no early elections at all. General elections will be held, as constitutionally mandated, in 2026.

In an attempt to be receptive to popular demands, Congress had worsened the situation. As protests continued, Congress tried again. There was hope that Congress would finally find a way out of the predicament it created for itself when the spokesperson of the pro-Castillo congressional delegation signed a motion on February 9 to restart the debate. However, this commitment quickly fell through due to the dysfunction of the political parties in parliament. In this case, another member of the pro-Castillo delegation announced that they were withdrawing their support.

To give themselves another chance to gather the votes for the constitutional reform that would allow early elections, the President of Congress extended the legislative session until February 17. No one knows whether another vote on early elections will be held or passed.

I offer this detailed description of the congressional back-and-forth to make a larger point: a dysfunctional political system finds itself unable to solve a crisis that was triggered by an undemocratic president, now in prison, and which was deepened by the current president by using lethal force to repress legitimate protests (the presence of criminal elements in some of the demonstrations has been unwisely used by president Boluarte to delegitimize all protesters).

The intransigence of the radical forces in Congress complicates the crisis. About 30 seats represent the radical left, and another 20 seats are controlled by the radical right. They have joined forces to block early elections. These extremist forces have enough veto power to prevent a qualified majority from settling the constitutional issue in two consecutive legislatures. To this, we might add president’s Dina Boluarte’s own intransigence, whose resignation would trigger early elections without the need for a constitutional reform, a move she refuses to make.

Students of political institutions know that the status quo is very difficult to dislodge without a strong coalition that offers an alternative to it, or a massive popular uprising that washes it away, like a tsunami. In Peru today, the status quo is disliked by the majority, as evidenced in public opinion polls, but there is no viable congressional coalition that can agree on how to change it.

The radical left is trying to use the popular protests to demand a constitutional referendum as a condition for voting in favor of early elections. The radical right simply does not want early elections. The forces in between are too disparate to act in a coordinated matter, and some of them have their own set of demands. The parties themselves cannot act in a coordinated matter, as they are unable to vote in a disciplined matter. Nobody can really predict the outcome of key votes based on how the parties’ spokespersons say they are going to vote.

While the protests and mobilizations have been massive, they suffer from three serious weaknesses: they are largely concentrated in the southern part of the country, they lack coordinated leadership, and they lack a common set of demands. Their discord militates against their effectiveness.

Thus, we are in a situation where institutional forces cannot agree on a path to change the status quo (which means everyone stays in office until 2026), and the street protests lack scope, coordination, and a clear platform to force such a change. In the absence of a viable political coalition that offers an institutional alternative, protests have shown their limits. The radical left believes they can get a constitutional referendum out of this crisis. The radical right believes that the state’s repressive apparatus is enough to contain the protests and obviate the whole conversation about early elections. Dina Boluarte refuses to resign.

And so, we approach a critical week in Peru’s politics. Will some of the congressional forces come to their senses and strike a deal to have early elections? Will the street protests expand their geographical reach or will continue to be localized? It is telling that no serious prediction can be offered about what Congress will do. We should not be surprised that a dysfunctional political system finds it impossible to find a way out of the crisis. In the meantime, Peru’s democracy is hanging by a thread.

Dr Julio F Carrión

Associate Professor, University of Delaware

Dr Julio Carrión is an Associate Professor in Department of Political Science and International Relations at the University of Delaware, where he founded the Center for Global and Area Studies. He holds a PhD in Political Science from the University of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Julio edited The Fujimori Legacy: The Rise of Electoral Authoritarianism in Peru, and has published numerous articles. His analysis of Peruvian politics has been featured in several media outlets. His most recent publication is A Dynamic Theory of Populism in Power: The Andes in Comparative Perspective.

This blog post was edited by Freddy Nevison-Andrews.

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