Peru’s democracy teeters on the brink

Reading time: 5 mins approx.

Peru faces a deep political crisis in the wake of Pedro Castillo’s failed coup d’état on December 7th. Any casual observer of Peruvian politics knows that the origins of Peru’s political dysfunction can be traced back to 2016.

That year, Keiko Fujimori, the leader of Fuerza Popular, came very close to winning the presidency. Although she did not win, Ms. Fujimori’s party secured a large congressional majority. Adopting an obstructionist attitude, her congressional bench, in alliance with other center-right parties, removed Pedro Pablo Kuczynski (PPK) from the presidency in 2019 by declaring him morally unfit to serve. The same coalition removed Martín Vizcarra, PPK’s vice president, in 2020, and appointed Manuel Merino, leader of Congress, as interim president. This action triggered massive mobilizations, for citizens saw it as a naked power grab.

The erosion of democratic norms accelerated in the wake of the 2020 presidential elections. Keiko Fujimori, losing again by a very narrow margin, contested the result by claiming that an electoral fraud had taken place. Rebuked by the electoral institutions and courts, some of her supporters openly called for the military to intervene. In the end, Pedro Castillo assumed office, but the conservative congressional opposition, reeling from their electoral defeat, tried to impeach him twice on the flimsiest of arguments.

Compounding these already fragile conditions, Pedro Castillo added 18 months of mismanagement, ineptitude, and corruption. His frequent claims that he was governing for “the people” contrasted with his obvious disinterest in matters of governance. The Attorney General office collected credible evidence of Castillo’s influence peddling and pay-to-play corruption and asked Congress to indict him. Feeling cornered by the upcoming impeachment vote, Castillo decided to dissolve Congress, suspend other judicial and constitutional bodies, and rule by decree until new congressional elections were held. His anti-democratic act found no support among the armed forces and the police, and even among his own ministers, many of whom resigned on the spot. Congress quickly voted 101-6 to remove him from office. Arrested by his own personal security detail, Castillo is under provisional detention on charges of rebellion.

Peruvian democracy survived Castillo’s coup attempt but shows serious challenges in managing the transition. The constitutional succession worked impeccably when Dina Boluarte, Castillo’s vice president, assumed the presidency. However, misreading the political scenario, Boluarte stated that she intended to serve Castillo’s full term instead of seeing herself as a transition president. Within a couple of days, growing street protests forced her to announce that she will introduce a constitutional reform to call for early elections in April 2024.

The announcement, so far, has done little to calm protestors. So far, seven people have died, and dozens are injured, including members of the politics. Some radical leftists are trying to rewrite history by asserting that Castillo did not intend a coup and therefore needs to be freed. While the protests have not reached historic proportions, they are occurring in many places. Many of them do not exhibit a clear organization or leadership behind them. The demands are diverse, ranging from elections sooner than what Boluarte offers, to a referendum for a new constituent assembly to demanding Castillo’s freedom.

Despite the declaration of a state of emergency in several departments affected by violence, it is unclear whether it will prevent further mobilization. Lacking a clear structure and leadership, it is difficult to see how, or with whom, President Boluarte can negotiate to end the protests.

Dina Boluarte is a weak president. She does not even have a nominal political party and is therefore subject to the vagaries of congressional politics, the pressures from the street, and any political capital she may collect from public opinion. Her first cabinet is notable in that it is populated by technocrats and people without much political experience. Some appointments have been well received and, overall, she has been commended for appointing a team that shines in comparison to the cabinets Pedro Castillo used to name.

Perhaps she will be rewarded by some good numbers when the first post-coup polls are released. But her prime minister has been unnecessarily dismissive of the protests and there is a growing sentiment that he may need to resign even before he appears before Congress for the required vote of confidence. Members of Congress have realized that they need to reform the constitution to call for early elections. What they will extract in return is everybody’s guess.

Even less predictable is the reaction from the streets. Peru is used to protests, even violent ones, so the threshold for becoming a very serious issue is high. But things can unravel quite rapidly. They involve multiple stakeholders, and some are anti-systemic actors with intentions to exacerbate deepen the political crisis.

President Boluarte faces quite a difficult task in finding a roadmap to negotiate a constitutional way out to this crisis. The continuation of Peru’s democracy may rest in her ability to do so.

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.

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