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Peru - Points on the Political Crisis
The paradox that Peru currently faces is that its political system is too broken to fix itself.
I didn't think President Pedro Castillo would make it through the first quarter of 2023, but I did expect him to survive the impeachment vote scheduled for last week.
There were four clear reasons for Castillo to not dissolve Congress prior to last week’s impeachment vote:
It wasn't legal for him to do so.
He didn't have the political capital.
There wasn't an urgent need to do it. He was likely to survive the impeachment vote. He had at least a ten-vote margin according to most people who were counting the votes.
If he tried to dissolve Congress, it was fairly clear he would lose the political and legal battle and simply push Congress to remove him sooner rather than later.
Castillo didn't have the same analysis of his own situation that I did. He moved forward with trying to dissolve the Congress, implement a government ruling under emergency powers, and called for new legislative elections. Every other democratic institution in Peru turned against him. The police and military stopped following his orders. Four hours later, there was a new president of Peru.
Castillo's own goal is a reminder for analysts that you should never assume that politicians won't make obvious mistakes.
Dina Boluarte is the new president of Peru.
Vice presidents take over when presidents leave power for whatever reason and can often govern with the full authority of a president. Transitional presidents happen after a sudden coup or other breaches of democracy; their only goal is to successfully guide the country to the next democratic election. Given the circumstances, Boluarte is a strange combination of both a legitimate vice presidential succession and a transitional president taking over amid a political crisis after a self-coup attempt, albeit a short and stupid one.
Boluarte is a lawyer turned politician (there are a lot of those). She is absolutely qualified to be president. She has appointed an excellent cabinet that would be positive for almost any administration. She has a view of constitutional reform that balances the desire for change by the public without backing the radical agenda that Cerron and even Castillo seemed to support. Boluarte is trying to move past the crisis, get to the holidays, and then implement an agenda over the coming year. Analysts and the Peruvian Congress should not underestimate her political abilities if she can get back to a normal governing situation.
Unfortunately, Peru's crisis of the moment is well beyond the challenges of basic day-to-day governance. The ongoing protests and the executive-legislative tensions require crisis management that Boluarte is struggling with. On top of the very visible street protests, there are opponents in Congress and elsewhere within the Peruvian political system - people who worked hard to toss out Castillo and should be celebrating and helping to smooth the transition - already scheming to manipulate the new crisis situation to their advantage. That she may be undermined from within the system, as well as by those outside the system protesting, is a large two-sided threat.
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There are protests in Peru. The protesters are angry. But they are not in agreement about their agenda. There is not a single leader of the protest movement, though Antauro Humala is among those making an attempt to be that leader. The protesters are not all pro-Castillo or pro-Humala. They don't all necessarily want a reversal that puts Castillo back in office. Some of the protesters angry at Castillo's removal today were protesting against the Castillo government just a few months ago. There does seem to be some unity over the question of new elections, but the details of how or when remain unclear.
Whatever the inchoate agenda, most importantly, the protesters are angry. There is real anger at the appearance that a Peruvian president elected by the rural poor was forced from office by urban, political elites who rarely care about the lives of the people outside of Lima. That anger should not be discounted or dismissed by those in power. While there are certainly some criminal and other illegal groups attempting to take advantage of the protests, these protests are driven by legitimate anger, not some secret insurgent terrorist group.
As with all protests in democratic countries, police violence is more likely to enrage and sustain the protesters and drive new people out to the streets. The repression by Peru's police forces has already proven to be excessive. While this wasn't true or guaranteed last week, the country now appears to be on track for a cycle of escalation if the current trends of excessive force by the police continue, adding yet another challenge for Boluarte as she tries to maintain government composure.
No politician is popular in Peru. The public hates them all. If a new presidential election were held today, the field would be divided with a dozen contenders taking less than 10% of the vote and nobody polling above 20%. That’s essentially what happened last year. If new legislative elections are held, most members of Congress will lose their seats and the political system will be divided across 10 or so parties.
Peru's "miracle" over the past decade has been that the political turmoil has only had a limited impact on the country's strong economic growth. That appears to have ended with the crisis over the past year. This month's self-coup attempt, presidential transition, and protest movement shutting down highways, airports, and mining infrastructure are certainly bad for the economy. But even beyond the current moment, analysts are correctly questioning how the country can regain any economic stability when it lurches from political crisis to crisis every few months.
Boluarte very likely (though not definitely) makes it through the immediate crisis and protests and will have at least a few months to govern next year. But the longer-term political crisis that the country has experienced over the past decade will continue in 2023 and 2024. New elections alone won't fix a political and party system that has been totally discredited and broken. For that reason, this isn't a typical post-coup transition government just trying to make it to the next democratic election.
There are deeper challenges for Peru's democracy that one or several elections won’t solve. Boluarte should work to create a dialogue with society that addresses those challenges. At the same time, while Peru needs that level of serious leadership that goes beyond just managing the basic governing of the country, the new president is likely to struggle to make it to the end of her term, much less lead a deeper reform. As will the next president. The paradox that Peru currently faces is that its political system is too broken to fix itself. It’s a negative spiral that will take exceptional leadership from inside the political system as well as civil society to escape.