News | Social Movements / Organizing - Political Parties / Election Analyses - Andes Region Peruvian Democracy in Crisis

As anti-government protests drag into their third month, can the country’s institutions survive?


Thousands of trade unionists took to the streets of Lima to demand the resignation of President Dina Boluarte and early elections on 9 February 2023. Photo: IMAGO / ZUMA Wire

Peru has been trapped in uncertainty since 7 December, when left-wing president Pedro Castillo addressed the nation on the eve of his third impeachment vote in Congress, accused Congress of staging a coup, ordered its dissolution, and called for new elections and a new constitution.

Octavio García Soto is a Panamanian–Chilean freelance journalist and videographer currently interning at the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation in Berlin.

This was not the first time a Peruvian president had executed such a move. Alberto Fujimori did the same in 1992 with overwhelming popular support and, more importantly, the backing of the armed forces. This was not the case with Castillo. The military did not recognize his announcement, and Congress declared him a rebel. Castillo was arrested by his bodyguard and imprisoned, where he remains to this day. His vice president, Dina Boluarte, took office, becoming the country’s first female president. The Peruvian media and political establishment have since declared Castillo’s announcement to be an autogolpe (an “auto-“ or “self-coup”).

Yet unlike Fujimori’s self-coup three decades ago, Castillo’s removal from office has spurred massive protests and ultimately paralysed the country. The majority of protesters come from the rural South and are Indigenous, mainly Quechua and Aymará. They accuse Congress of staging a coup and denounce the current government as a “parliamentary dictatorship”. Their major demands are freedom for Castillo, Boluarte’s resignation, new elections, and a new constitution.

Boluarte has refused to step aside, and decreed a state of emergency in various regions, mainly in the South, where the majority of the protests are taking place. It is estimated that 60 people have died since the protests began, of which at least 47 were protesters who were killed by the police or military.

The Pink Tide’s Controversial Populist

Castillo’s rise was intrinsically linked to the new “Pink Tide” in Latin America, denoting the wave of progressive governments elected in the region over the last few years. He ran on promises of a free healthcare system, free public universities, a stronger education system, and a new constitution drafted by a Constitutional Assembly.

Nevertheless, he differed from other left-wing candidates in the region in terms of his notorious chauvinism and that of his political party, Peru Libre. Castillo was criticized for his comments on women during the campaign, such as his remark that “we need to tell Congressmen to think about their country, about their position — not their secretary”, or that “feminicide is produced by the idleness generated by the state, unemployment, and crime”.

This friction persisted long after Castillo took office, especially when he named Guido Bellido, who had made similar comments in the past, as his prime minister. In a 2018 Facebook post, Bellido referred to women as “destructive and ruthless when they mix spite and selfishness”. In response to his appointment, Minister of Economy and Finance Pedro Francke wore a rainbow flag pin during his swearing-in ceremony.

This sort of rhetoric did not hurt Castillo’s popularity among the poorest and the Indigenous, however, nor did the overwhelmingly negative press he received from Peru’s biggest newspapers, El Comercio and La República, both owned by wealthy families. The Miró Quezada family, the owners of El Comercio, also has investments in tourism, mining, real estate, and banking.

Centre and Periphery

Peru’s political scene is dominated by a long-running conflict between the capital, Lima, and the provinces, with the latter accusing the former of being the only beneficiary from decades of economic growth. According to Peru’s National Statistics Institute, almost one third of Peruvians live in poverty, the poorest region being indigenous Puno, where massive demonstrations have recently taken place.

Social relations in Peru have remained relatively unchanged since colonial times: a land-owning minority of European descent holds the economic and political power over a mixed-race and Indigenous majority. This is evident in the agricultural sector, where a handful of companies not only owns a majority of the land, but also has a monopoly on infrastructure and water resources. Meanwhile, small farmers from the poor rural regions have little access to capital and are left on their own to compete in a globalized market.

Even as the masses desperately cry out for change, the government and Congress remain idle.

A similar dynamic can be observed in the mining industry, one of Peru’s most important as the world’s second-biggest copper exporter after Chile. While investment in the industry is high, Indigenous workers who abandon subsistence farming for mining find themselves alienated, as they often receive little pay for their labour. Many regions with major mining operations still rank among the poorest in the country, with little access to healthcare, education, and even basic water services.

This situation proved fertile ground for the politics of Pedro Castillo, a charismatic union leader and teacher from the countryside. Not only did the rural population see themselves in him, but they also saw a worthy challenger to the racist elite in the heavily centralized capital. In the aftermath of Castillo’s victory in the presidential elections, his far-right challenger Keiko Fujimori immediately questioned the legitimacy of the results. Castillo’s base responded by travelling to Lima and demonstrating in support of their president.

But Castillo’s mass following failed to translate into political capital. Accusations of corruption, as well as pressure from Congress to resign, flooded in as soon as he took office and held him back from pursuing his programme more aggressively. Besides an investigation of the crime of sedition due to his “self-coup”, there are currently seven other official investigations against him, all of which are still in their initial stages.

Constitutional Constraints

In many ways, the roots of the crisis can be situated in Peru’s controversial and one-sided constitution, which gives Congress overwhelming powers over the executive branch. Until recently, the vote of confidence was one of these powers. Every new prime minister must present their cabinet proposal to Congress. If rejected, all cabinet members must resign. There were over 70 personnel changes in Pedro Castillo’s cabinet, a record high for any Peruvian president. Critics point to a lack of experience, but his supporters accuse the right-wing Congress of boycotting Castillo.

Evidence shows that elite sabotage was not out of the question. Industrialists from the National Industry Association were discovered to have been actively plotting to destabilize the government. They exerted pressure for cabinet changes, offered media outlets money in exchange for negative press about the government, financed anti-government strikes and protests, and discussed strategies to overthrow the government in chat groups.

But where Congress’s excessive power is most evident is probably in its impeachment faculties, through which it is capable of deposing the president on grounds such as “moral incapacity”. Peru has had six different presidents over the last six years, three of whom were impeached by Congress on just such grounds.

Peru’s constitution dates back to 1993, and was adopted during Alberto Fujimori’s dictatorship. Two years after his initial election in 1990, Fujimori dissolved parliament with the support of the armed forces and established an interim government. This highly popular move was meant to do away with the country’s “incompetent politicians” and wage a dirty war against the guerrilla army of the Shining Path, a Maoist rebel group that had been conducting violent campaigns in the countryside since the 1980s.

The Constitutional Assembly and referendum that followed Fujimori’s self-coup were marred by corruption and the influence of Fujimori and his allies. It enshrined free-market ideology and was accompanied by a wave of privatizations of public services and companies in sectors such as mining, telecommunications, electricity, and banking. Moreover, it established the country’s confusing parliamentary system.

While the traditional Right, represented by the likes of Mario Vargas Llosa and backed by the old oligarchy, was initially critical of Fujimori for his abuses and corruption, Fujimori’s dictatorship saw the emergence of a new, neoliberal Right. Unlike the aristocratic Right of old, this one was composed of technocrats linked to financial capital and transnational corporations.

A Weakened Left

The period from 1968 to 1989 can be considered the only time the Left wielded some measure of power in Peru, when a number of military and civilian governments pushed developmentalist policies and adopted an antiimperialist stance against US intervention in Latin America.

Currently, five left-wing political parties are represented in Congress. None of them stood unapologetically behind Castillo, voting many times against his initiatives. Yet none of these parties have been able to gather broad popular support either, including Castillo’s party, the “Marxist-Leninist” Peru Libre, which, however, expelled him soon after his election on the grounds of damaging party unity, accusing him of supporting a schism in its congressional caucus, which reduced their membership from 37 to 16.

Political parties in Peru were hollowed out during Fujimori’s dictatorship, when political survival forced many parties to lean towards personalist politics and remain silent about the attacks on democracy. This scenario proved destructive for the Left, which had already lost credibility by the time Fujimori came to power due to the brutality of the Shining Path and the failure of Alan García’s centre-left government (1985–1990) to solve the hyperinflation crisis.

The recent wave of protests has been Peru’s biggest in recent history, and showcases a deep-seated social anger that goes well beyond the ousting of a president.

García’s party, the American Popular Revolutionary Alliance (APRA), had been Peru’s mass party of the Left for decades. But by the time of his presidency it was in disarray. The party’s only leader, Victor Haya de la Torre, had died in 1979 at 84 years old, understandably fostering the perception that the party had become a gerontocracy. Moreover, it had failed to modernize its nationalist revolutionary discourse from the 1930s and 1940s. As a result, it lost most of its mass appeal.

In the 20 years between the return to democracy and Castillo’s election, Peru had three prominent left-wing candidacies: Ollanta Humala in 2006 and 2011, and Verónica Mendoza in 2016. A nationalist supported by a coalition of centre-left parties, Humala came to power in 2011, but his coalition quickly fell apart as his politics took a sharp turn to the right. Former backer Verónica Mendoza was one of the figures disillusioned by Humala, resigning from his Partido Nationalista. She spearheaded a new left-wing coalition, Frente Amplio, during the 2016 presidential elections, and came in third. She ran again in 2021 with a new party, Nuevo Peru, but could not repeat her strong showing.

The Change That Refuses to Come

A recent poll showed that 71 percent of Peruvians wanted current president Dina Boluarte to resign and favoured new elections. Universities and regional governments have also called for the same. Yet so far, Boluarte refuses.

In the last weeks, various proposals for new elections have been presented in Congress by different political forces, including Peru Libre and the Fujimorista Fuerza Popular. Along with its motion, Peru Libre also asked for a referendum on a new constitution. But all these proposals have been rejected.

Meanwhile, Pedro Castillo remains imprisoned and has notably changed attorneys twelve times. He is currently defended by Eugenio Zaffaroni, a former judge in the Inter-American Court of Human Rights. He argues that Castillo is innocent of rebellion, since this crime involves raising arms, which Castillo, who lacked the support of the armed forces, did not do.

Numerous official investigations into the deaths occurring during the protests have been opened. Furthermore, Dina Boluarte has publicly apologized for police abuses. But popular anger remains unquelled, and road blocks and clashes with police continue. President Boluarte’s discourse, denouncing demonstrators as terrorists and paramilitaries, has also been heavily criticized.

The recent wave of protests has been Peru’s biggest in recent history, and showcases a deep-seated social anger that goes well beyond the ousting of a president. Peruvians today are less tolerant of corruption, racism, and extreme concentrations of wealth than they were during the days of Fujimori, whose rule was often summarized with the phrase “roba pero hace obra” (he steals, but he gets things done). But even as the masses desperately cry out for change, the government and Congress remain idle. The deeper the crisis gets, the more one cannot help but ask: can institutions solve Peru’s crisis? Or does the country need new institutions?