Peru: A Boiling Political Crisis Of Dangerous Potential – Analysis
By Matija Šerić
In recent months, the Republic of Peru has been rocked by almost daily protests, riots, road blockades and repressive government measures.
The current political crisis began in December of last year, and there is no end in sight. Namely, on December 7, 2022, Pedro Castillo, then President of Peru, addressed the nation hours before he faced a third vote on his impeachment in the Peruvian Congress. Lawmakers wanted to force him to resign due to “permanent moral incapacity,” which is grounds for impeachment under the Peruvian Constitution. Announcing the immediate dissolution of Congress, leftist leader Castillo said he would create an “emergency government” that would rule by decree until new parliamentary elections. Such a move by Castillo is labeled a “coup d’état” (“autogolpe”, in Spanish) because he would give himself maximum powers.
Castillo was condemned by the entire Peruvian political scene, including members of his administration. He was arrested and impeached soon after, and the position of president was replaced by the previous vice president, Dina Boluarte. Protests broke out where protesters demanded new general elections. Some of the protests turned into violent and bloody riots. In the repressive police and military suppression of protests, 60 people have been killed so far (middle of April). Unrest in Peruvian streets, squares and mines is putting pressure on the Boluarte government, which many Peruvians consider Castillo’s illegitimate successor.
7 years of Peruvian political crisis
The causes of the political crisis in Peru are layered (social inequalities, political polarization, the Covid-crisis). The crisis did not actually start at the end of 2022, but has lasted for seven years. From December last year, it entered a new stage. It all started back in the spring of 2016, when Pedro Pablo Kuczynski won the presidential election against Keiko Fujimori, the former president’s daughter, with a small margin of 0.24%.
At the same time, Fujimori’s Fuerza Popular party won Congress in a landslide, winning 73 of the 130 seats. The bitter rivalry between the political forces turned into a conflict between the two branches of government. The Peruvian Constitution encouraged rivalry by allowing both the legislature and the executive to exercise powers against each other. Faced with allegations of corruption and overwhelmed by the opposition in Congress, Kuczynski resigned in March 2018 and was immediately replaced by Martín Vizcarra. Vizcarra’s tenure was equally tumultuous: he used his presidential power to dissolve Congress in 2019 after two no-confidence votes against his government, and was impeached by parliament a year later.
The political and social atmosphere in Peru is toxic. The country has had six presidents in seven years (due to resignations or impeachment) and three different convocations of parliament. Political showdowns have weakened the government’s ability to shape policy and meet public needs. Left-right polarization and extreme party fragmentation have made it difficult to reach a consensus on how to deal with challenges such as the economy, widespread poverty and a poor health care system. The poor state of healthcare during the pandemic led to the highest death rate from the coronavirus in the world.
Waves of unrest and protests
In the current phase of the crisis, the protesters have no identifiable leadership, but they have gathered around several key demands: Boluarte’s resignation, Castillo’s release from prison (half support), holding immediate general elections, dissolving Congress and convening an assembly to draft a new Constitution. The protests brought many layers of society to the streets: students, professors, farmers, trade unionists, indigenous peoples, as well as self-defense communal groups that emerged during the armed conflict in Peru in the 1980s and 1990s: the frentes de defensa (defense fronts) and rondas campesinas (rural patrols).
Waves of protests have appeared in the southern regions of Peru – a region with a large Indian population and high levels of poverty – as well as in large coastal cities such as Callao and the capital Lima. Dissatisfaction in the country is high and most of the protesters are tired of putting up with a dysfunctional state apparatus. Peru is a highly unequal country: power and financial resources tend to be concentrated in the hands of a white urban elite, while a significant indigenous rural minority suffers from racism and a lack of economic opportunity. The natives identified with Castillo, a former teacher from the village. They see his impeachment as a direct attack on their community.
As the violence on the streets intensified and protesters died in clashes with the repressive apparatus, the protest movement flared up further. Of the 60 people who have lost their lives to date, an estimated 48 have been killed in clashes with the police or the military. Government officials claim that the police acted in self-defense, but there is evidence that officers resorted to lethal force, including shooting, when it was not necessary. Local authorities in the southern city of Juliaca confirmed on January 9 that 17 protesters died of gunshot wounds and that one police officer was burned to death in a mob attack.
National and international human rights groups have spoken out against the government’s violence against its own people, while Peru’s attorney general’s office is conducting a preliminary investigation into charges of murder and genocide against Boluarte and members of her cabinet. Five cabinet ministers resigned over disagreements over how the turmoil was handled. Leftists in Congress began collecting signatures to remove Boluarte, and three provincial governments demanded her immediate resignation.
Ambiguous answer of Boluarte
Boluarte’s response to the protests was ambiguous. On the one hand, she declared a state of emergency in the cities affected by the protests, dismissing the protesters’ demands as unrealistic and blaming foreign provocateurs for the unrest. The state of emergency allows the Peruvian armed forces to support the police in restoring order. The government suspended bans on searches of private property and restricted civil liberties such as the constitutional right to freedom of movement and freedom of assembly.
Boluarte and her prime minister, Alberto Otárola, argued that the tough measures were necessary because the demonstrations had endangered people’s lives and public property. Prime Minister Otárola claimed that armed groups funded by “foreign interests and the dark money of the drug trade” were destroying the country. The former left-wing president of Bolivia, Evo Morales, and eight other Bolivian citizens have been banned from entering the territory of Peru, on suspicion of meddling in the country’s internal affairs.
Police and intelligence say Sendero Luminoso (Shining Path, or officially the Communist Party of Peru), a Maoist terrorist group that has plunged the country into two decades of conflict, leaving more than 10,000 dead, is involved in the unrest. This group has been in decline since the 1990s, although its remnants operate in the Apurímac, Ene and Mantaro river valleys. Authorities arrested several people accused of belonging to Sendero Luminos and participating in the violent riots in Ayacucho in mid-December. The police also point to the involvement of armed criminal groups in the protests. In Peru’s northwestern region of La Libertad, reports have emerged that the Los Cagaleches de Virú gang is making money from roadblocks by charging truck drivers tolls. In fact, these are isolated cases that do not form the core of the protest movement.
On the other hand, the president insisted that she wants to maintain the spirit of dialogue with political opponents. She tried to speed up the schedule of general elections and pushed for possible constitutional reforms – key demands of the protesters. Boluarte is in an unenviable political position. She assumed the presidency without a formal party affiliation and without real support in Congress. While she was once a member of Peru Libre, a party of Marxist orientation, she was expelled from it in 2022 because she stated in an interview that she never accepted the party’s ideology.
As a result of conflicts with former Marxist comrades, Boluarte now depends on the support of conservatives. She initially resisted calls for voters to go to the polls for early elections, a sign to many Peruvians that she sees her presidency as illegitimate. She later agreed to a request to allow elections in 2023, but Congress would have to ratify the change.
Initiatives for the establishment of the Constituent Assembly
Due to dissatisfaction with the political system, there were increasingly loud calls for the establishment of a Constituent Assembly to draft a new Constitution that would change Peru’s political system. According to research, 69% of Peruvians support the convening of the Constituent Assembly. The current Constitution was adopted during the authoritarian rule of President Albert Fujimori in 1993. Then Fujimori dissolved parliament and ruled by decree. Although Fujimori agreed to reconvene Congress, the Constitution adopted during his authoritarian rule concentrated power in the executive branch, undermining parliament and halving the number of representatives.
Proponents of changing the Constitution propose electoral reforms that would include re-establishing a second house of Congress, allowing representatives to serve more consecutive terms, creating special electoral districts and reforming the body that governs the electoral system. Although many experts consider constitutional reforms to be key to improving the political climate, the announced reforms have strengthened the public’s perception that politicians are motivated by personal interests. Critics point out that the changes some politicians are advocating (such as consecutive terms) would allow those politicians to keep their seats in Congress.
These same parliamentarians resisted the calling of early general elections, which reinforced the perception that they were trying to hold on to power. Peruvians have little faith in their politicians. Political parties are the most discredited public institution in the country: only 4% of Peruvians trust them.
During the protests, the left parties who supported this idea for many years were the loudest in the demands for the establishment of a constitutional assembly. The protestors’ insistence on a new Constitution was wrong for two reasons. First, the political conditions for rewriting the Constitution simply did not exist: there was never a consensus among the protesters on this issue. Second, if they had not tied the issue of the Constituent Assembly to support for early elections, they could probably agree with other forces in the parliament that the elections would be held in 2024. The right-wing parties are mostly concerned about preserving their seats in Congress, so tolerating Boluarta as president is the best option short and medium term.
Negative impact of the crisis on the economy
As a result of Castillo’s chaotic mandate, investment and public spending declined, and Peru’s credit rating was cut to negative by Fitch Ratings. Tourism, an extremely important economic sector, was shaken to its foundations by the protests. Meanwhile, inflation rose to its highest level since the beginning of the century (around 8.5%), even though the central bank paused interest rate hikes in February.
The mining sector, the driver of the economy, has been particularly hard hit. Peru is the world’s second largest exporter of copper and an important world exporter of zinc, silver and tin. Mineral exports account for almost 60% of national exports and 10% of national GDP. However, mining production in Peru has declined in 2022 as a result of the unrest, despite growing global demand for renewable energy and an international copper shortage expected to last until the end of the decade. The Andes mountain range, where most of Peru’s mines are located, has become the epicenter of anti-government protests.
Copper is indispensable for the transition of large economies from fossil fuels to renewable energy sources. It is used in solar panels, wind turbines and electric car batteries. In late January, road blockades and mine invasions by protesters resulted in the shutdown of part of the mining industry, putting about 30% of Peru’s copper production at risk. That’s why global copper prices jumped literally overnight. Although mining activity has since recovered, there is no guarantee that new problems will not arise. In early March, protesters continued to block a key highway to the Las Bambas mines, which are responsible for 2% of global copper production. The blockade was short-lived, but it showed the dangers. If the unrest in Peru continues to stifle copper exports, economies around the world will feel the consequences.
Impact of the crisis on the rest of the region
Although the protests have subsided in recent weeks, it is clear that Peru is facing a protracted crisis that may have important effects on the rest of the South American region. If Peru’s economy continues to weaken, the country could join Haiti, Nicaragua and Venezuela as a major source of emigration.
Peru is home to 1.5 million immigrants, asylum seekers and refugees (most of whom come from Venezuela), making it the second recipient country of migrants in Latin America (Colombia is the first). Although the Peruvian government has tightened border controls, the number of Venezuelans living in Peru is expected to grow by the end of this year. Still, 35% of Venezuelans living in the country still do not have the legal status needed to access social services and the legal labor market. If investment is absent and economic growth is not tangible, Venezuelans living in Peru will likely head north, joining their many compatriots who are leaving Colombia in increasing numbers. In 2022, Venezuelans were among the leading nationalities to enter the US illegally.
The crisis in Peru triggered diplomatic conflicts between Lima and neighboring countries. After Castillo’s arrest, the left-wing presidents of Argentina, Bolivia, Colombia and Mexico clearly condemned Castillo’s impeachment and subsequent detention, arguing that it violated international human rights laws. The Mexican government later announced that members of Castillo’s family had accepted her offer to seek asylum in Mexico. In response, Boluarte recalled Peru’s ambassador from Mexico, further fueling tensions between the two countries.
Meanwhile, Colombian President Gustavo Petro called Castillo a “victim of a fascist coup” and compared Boluarte’s government to Nazi Germany. The Peruvian Congress rejected these claims and named Peter persona non grata. Of late, mass protests have become the unwelcome standard in South America, flaring up in Chile, Colombia and Ecuador, with Peru leading the way. If the Peruvian crisis is not resolved, it could bring ripple effects throughout the region.
Boluarte – a politician skilled in political survival
The situation in Peru between December 2022 and February 2023 made it very likely that the current president, Dina Boluarte, would spend only a few months in office. The former vice president faced escalating protests demanding either her resignation or for Peru’s Congress to authorize early elections as soon as possible.
However, the pressure on Boluarte seems to be easing. The protests peaked in January and have since subsided. They are now mostly concentrated in Puno, the southern Peruvian region bordering Bolivia, where Castillo and Boluarte won 89% of the vote in 2021. But even in Puno, there are signs of stagnation. Although according to international estimates, the GDP of the Puno region will decrease by 5% this year, while it will grow by 1.9% in the rest of the country, and its local population is becoming more and more tired of constant strikes and blockades. Recent polls show that 43% of Peruvians believe the protests will not lead to early elections, compared to 38% in February. Similarly, 53% of respondents believe that the protests will not force Boluarte to resign.
Congress considered all the bills related to the holding of early elections. In mid-March, the representatives for the fifth time rejected the possibility of holding early elections at the end of the year. Extraordinary elections will be difficult to happen because 87 of the 130 deputies in the unicameral Peruvian Congress would have to vote for them, which is unlikely to happen, and general elections will be held as planned in 2026.
The request to start impeachment proceedings against the president, submitted by left-wing parties, rejected at the beginning of April, because he did not receive the support of other parties. It is not that Boluarte suddenly became acceptable to Peruvians. She has a paltry 15% popular vote, according to polls, and her government’s recent response to deadly rainstorms, landslides and flooding in early March in the north of the country has been widely criticized. How is Boluarte still in office? The answer lies in the fierce division of the entire political spectrum. On the left, parties like Peru Libre (which brought Castillo and Boluarte to power) and Nuevo Peru proved unable to unite social movements to achieve their goals, even though the population was highly motivated for change.
Possible further course of events
Boluarte was never part of Castillo’s inner circle and is considered more pragmatic and stable than her predecessor. The army and security services firmly support the government, which has been shown by the violent crackdown on protesters. If the status quo (first half of April) is more or less maintained, it is very likely that Boluarte will manage to stay in office until the regular end of his term in 2026. Although this is good for the Peruvian government, it is hard to say that such a scenario is in the best interest of Peru.
The current government has shown on several occasions that it is ready to use brutal force to quell social unrest. If new waves of violence follow, the heated political situation in the country will further boil over, as will distrust in the democratic system. Despite the repression, the rule of democracy is in force in Peru, however incorrect it may sound. If the repression continues, Peru would really have to slip into some form of authoritarian regime.
Boluarte does not inspire confidence that he can find solutions to a very difficult situation. Even far more talented statesmen would find it difficult to manage in such a divided country. The president does not have a clear political program, she is not effective in her decisions, and most importantly, she does not have a vision of what Peru should look like. With all these problems, he has no real support in Congress. Her mandate will bring little if any progress in the economic and social sphere. Also, the overthrow of Boluarta and the arrival of a new president is not a guarantee of improvement in the political and economic situation, as recent history has unequivocally shown. Perhaps the president’s ineffective mandate will buy time for Peruvians to choose professional and moral leadership in the elections in three years.