Peru: democracy at a crossroads
Dina Boluarte is Peru’s sixth president in six years, appointed in December 2022 to replace Pedro Castillo following his attempted ‘self-coup’. A wave of protests greeted Boluarte’s inauguration, met with lethal repression that has so far claimed dozens of lives. Those who pinned their hopes for a better life on Castillo, a leftist from humble origins, see his removal as a coup and blame an obstructive Congress. A fresh election held as soon as possible seems to be the only way out for Peruvian democracy – but many people’s deep dissatisfaction with a system they see as failing them is likely to remain.
On 25 January, roughly six weeks after being sworn in following the removal of her predecessor, Peruvian president Dina Boluarte finally recognised that elections were the only way out of the acute political crisis her country is going through. In an address to the Organisation of American States (OAS), she asked for support to conduct a process leading to early elections.
Elections were rescheduled for April 2024, much earlier than the end of the presidential term Boluarte has been tasked with completing, but not soon enough for the thousands who have taken to the streets demanding her immediate resignation. Boluarte has so far made clear she doesn’t intend to resign before elections are held.
Before addressing the OAS she had called for a ‘national truce’ – but her speech was greeted with further protests. Protesters clashed with the police, throwing rocks and being met with teargas – and worse – in response. It was one of the most violent day of protests.
State repression has led to major bloodshed. The Ombudsman’s office reports that 56 people have so far lost their lives and 1,492 have suffered injuries. The dead are overwhelmingly civilians killed by security forces.
Repression has also been politically costly to the government: the cabinet started losing members as soon as the first deaths were confirmed on 17 December.
What happened and what it means
Peru’s presidential system is unusual in that it allows for Congress to ‘vacate’ the presidency. Unlike in other presidential systems, impeachment is easy: a legislative majority can remove a president on vaguely defined grounds such as ‘moral incapacity’.
By early December, Pedro Castillo, elected president in July 2021, had already survived two removal attempts and faced a third. Many analysts predicted he would survive, but on 7 December he made a pre-emptive strike: he declared the dissolution of Congress and a restructuring of the judiciary, much like former president Alberto Fujimori had done decades earlier in the ‘self-coup’ that kicked off a period of authoritarian rule.
As he dissolved Congress, Castillo announced the establishment of an exceptional emergency government where he would rule by decree, while promising to hold congressional elections soon. The new Congress, he said, would have the power to draft a new constitution.
Unlike Fujimori, however, Castillo enjoyed meagre support – among the public, Congress and the elite. Condemnations of his actions poured in, including from some ministers who quit the government. Within hours Congress had voted to remove Castillo from office on grounds of ‘permanent moral incapacity’. Castillo was arrested as he headed towards the Mexican embassy, presumably to request political asylum, and remains in pretrial detention on rebellion charges. Vice-president Boluarte was immediately sworn in as his replacement.
In the whirlwind that followed there was a lot of talk about a coup, or a coup attempt, having taken place – but opinions differed radically as to who was the victim and who was the perpetrator.
The prevailing view was that Castillo’s dissolution of Congress was a blatant violation of the separation of powers and therefore a presidential coup attempt. Others however interpreted Castillo’s removal as a coup. The debate is polarised on ideological grounds, making clear that in Peru, and more generally in Latin America, a principled rather than partisan defence of democracy continues to be lacking.
Recent events are part of a longer political crisis that has seen six presidents come and go in six years. Held at the height of the pandemic, the 2021 presidential election didn’t break the pattern. A polarising campaign was followed by an extremely fragmented vote that required a runoff vote: Castillo was its unexpected winner. A leftist outsider of humble origins who received just 18.9 per cent of the first-round vote, he defeated a three-time right-wing candidate – Fujimori’s daughter, Keiko – by less than one percentage point. Keiko Fujimori initially rejected the results and baselessly claimed fraud. It took months for her to concede. Castillo’s presidency was fragile from the start.
For the 18 months it lasted, Castillo’s was an unstable government, with a high rotation of ministers and fluctuating congressional support – business as usual in a country where legislators seemingly change parties more often than their clothes. It was surprising that Castillo managed to escape two motions of vacancy for ‘permanent moral incapacity’ attempted by Congress and get the appointments of new ministers approved.
Although Castillo had promised to break the cycle of corruption that most badly affects people living in poverty – from whom he drew much of his support – his government soon became the target of corruption allegations – against Castillo, ministers, officials, close associates and family members. These came not just from the political opposition but also from the Ombudsman’s Office, the Comptroller General’s Office, the National Civil Service Authority and the Public Prosecutor’s Office. By the time Castillo was removed from office, his approval ratings, never particularly high, were dismal.
Castillo’s response to these was to attack the prosecutor and ask the OAS to apply its Democratic Charter to preserve Peruvian democratic institutions supposedly under attack. In response, the OAS sent a mission to analyse the situation, which ended with a call for dialogue. Only two weeks later, Castillo embarked on his short-lived coup adventure.
Protests and repression
According to Peru’s Constitution, Boluarte should go on to complete Castillo’s term – but then again, no president has served a full term since Ollanta Humala stood down in 2016, and even he didn’t avoid the common fate – jail – of former Peruvian presidents.
Observers generally agree there’s no way Boluarte could stay in office until 2024, never mind 2026, given the rejection she faces not just from the people who have risen up in protest but also from political parties in Congress.
A wave of protests demanding Boluarte’s resignation and early elections rose as soon as she was sworn in, led mostly by students, Indigenous groups and unions. Many also demanded Castillo’s freedom and government action to address poverty and inequality. Some demands went further, including a call for a constituent assembly – the promise made by Castillo before being removed from office – to produce more balanced representation, particularly for Indigenous people. For many of Peru’s poorest people, Castillo represented hope for change. With him gone, they felt forgotten.
Demonstrations, marches and road blockades spread like wildfire. Even Macchu Picchu, on which thousands depend economically, was shut down in the context of a ‘radical strike‘.
Four days into the job, Boluarte declared a state of emergency in affected regions, which she later extended to the whole country. This only further fuelled protests. The security forces responded with extreme violence, often shooting to kill. No wonder so many Peruvians feel this isn’t a democracy anymore.
Voices from the frontline
Nadia Ramos is CEO of the Women’s Leadership Centre of the Americas and official spokesperson for the Hemispheric Network Somos Lideresas, two organisations that promote women’s leadership and empowerment in Peru and Latin America.
In recent years we have seen a succession of six presidents and experienced several situations of profound instability. This particular political crisis was resolved within a few hours, as Congress immediately vacated the president and called on the vice-president, Dina Boluarte, to take office as Peru’s first female president.
However, the public expected Boluarte to resign, for Congress to elect a new Presiding Board – the body in charge of the administrative management of Congress – and for the president of Congress to assume the national presidency in order to call for new general elections. When Boluarte decided to remain at the helm, a wave of protests demanding her resignation broke out across the country. In the crackdown on the protests, 28 people were killed, including four minors. This led to the resignation of two ministers and the reshuffling of the first cabinet of the Boluarte government.
Congress then approved in first reading a call for general elections to be held in April 2024. A second vote is now due to take place during the next ordinary session. We hope that electoral and political reforms will continue to ensure that the right people can reach Congress and the presidential office.
This is an edited extract of our conversation with Nadia. Read the full interview here.
What’s wrong with Peruvian democracy?
The Economist Intelligence Unit’s Democracy Index rates Peru as a ‘flawed democracy’ – a deeply flawed one, on the brink of being downgraded to a ‘hybrid regime’ – a system part way between democracy and authoritarianism.
A closer look at the index’s components allows for a better understanding of what’s wrong with Peruvian democracy: its lowest score is for its political culture dimension. In line with this, the Americas Barometer places Peru among the Latin American countries with lowest levels of popular support for democracy – barely 50 per cent in Peru, compared to a high of 80 per cent in Uruguay. Peru is the Latin American country where opposition to coups is weakest: only 48 per cent oppose an executive coup and 55 per cent oppose a military coup.
Peru’s democracy also scores low when it comes to critical issues such as checks and balances, corruption and political participation. This points to the heart of the problem: it’s a dysfunctional system where those elected to govern fail to do so, public policies are incoherent and ineffective and public services are extremely deficient. Offering less than mediocre results, democracy systematically fails to live up to people’s expectations.
According to every survey, just a tiny minority of Peruvians are satisfied with their country’s democracy. The fact that no full-fledged alternative to democracy has yet emerged seems to be the only thing currently keeping democracy alive. Democratic renewal is needed, or an authoritarian substitute could well take hold.
OUR CALLS FOR ACTION
The Peruvian government must respect freedom of peaceful assembly and abide by international standards on the policing of protests.
The government must hold those responsible for deaths and injuries of protesters fully accountable.
The government must engage in dialogue with civil society to negotiate a path towards early elections to be held as soon as possible.
Cover photo by Pilar Olivares/Reuters via Gallo Images