Peru's path forward
Public opinion surveys from Peru show the public is united in its anger but divided on all the other details.
No politician is popular in Peru, and President Dina Boluarte is no exception. Recent Ipsos polling shows Boluarte’s approval rating was 20 percent in early January, slightly better than Congress’s approval rating of 14 percent. IEP’s January survey shows similar ratings for both Boluarte and Congress: 19 percent approval and 9 percent, respectively.
This past weekend, Boluarte extended a state of emergency declaration amid forceful anti-government protests that have been ongoing since December when Pedro Castillo was impeached for illegally trying to suspend Congress. The 30-day order, which applies to Lima, Puno, and Cusco, suspends certain constitutional rights. The order also imposes a curfew in Puno, where the greatest concentration of protester fatalities have taken place.
Boluarte’s decision to extend the state of emergency comes as the new president struggles to maintain what has been a tenuous-at-best grip on power since the start of her term. Since Pedro Castillo was removed from office, nearly 50 people have been killed in demonstrations in Peru. Mostly concentrated in the country’s southern region, the protests and law enforcement crackdown against protesters marks some of the most intense violence the country has seen in recent memory.
One challenge for Boluarte and Peru’s Congress in addressing the social unrest is that there is no clear agenda driving demonstrations. Castillo’s impeachment was the catalyst for protests, but the anger that is fueling popular mobilization is rooted in something deeper.
Many demonstrators initially mobilized to rebuke the removal of Pedro Castillo from office. But Castillo’s approval prior to the December political crisis was right around where Boluarte’s approval is today. He wasn’t overwhelmingly popular. Many of the same people who support the protests had a negative opinion of Castillo when he was in office.
Demonstrations are also driven by acute economic pressures, unrelated to the impeachment, which have only been exacerbated by recent global events. The spike in fertilizer prices due to the fallout from the war in Ukraine has aggravated food insecurity in Peru. The UN reported in November that more than half of Peruvians do not have sufficient access to safe and nutritious food. Journalist Mitra Taj also noted that the geography of the protests maps closely with regions that were hit the hardest by droughts in Peru last year.
Despite the broad demands and grievances represented by the protests, popular opinion throughout Peru is generally sympathetic to the demonstrators. IEP’s introductory note for their January survey titled “No es solo el sur” captures this exact sentiment.
60 percent of IEP respondents said the protests in December were justified, compared to only 35 percent who said they were not (5 percent were unsure). Urban and rural respondents alike support the protests in general terms. 64 percent of urban respondents said the protests were justified, and 66 percent of rural respondents said they were not. As expected, support for protests was lower in Lima than other regions of the country (52 percent), but the protests still enjoyed net positive support in Lima.
Public opinion also seems reasonably united that security forces used excessive force in responding to protests. The same survey showed 58 percent of respondents believed security forces used excess force, whereas only 26 percent of respondents believed security forces did not use excess force.
As we’ve seen in previous cases (i.e. Chile), popular support for protesters and popular contempt for state security forces is not necessarily enduring, and polling over January protests indicates the public may not stay supportive of demonstrations especially if state of emergency disruptions persist. 50 percent of IEP respondents said they identify with the protests, while 46 percent said they do not, and the numbers supporting the protests appear to be on a slow decline. There is overwhelming disapproval of disruptive forms of protest including blocking roads, vandalizing public buildings, and impeding transit systems. The public agrees with the anger against the political elite but not the destruction of the economy and infrastructure.
The outcry for robust political and social change is undeniable, but the details of the demands are unclear. Between May 2022 and January 2023, the proportion of Peruvians who said they support convening a constitutional assembly to change Peru’s constitution rose from 47 percent to 69 percent. But that is as far as the consensus goes. The Peruvian public is split on whether they want a new constitution or to simply reform the current one, and the only proposed policies that respondents showed substantial support for were instituting the death penalty for serious crimes and establishing mandatory military service.
As we wrote in December, the paradox of Peru’s political system is that it’s arguably too broken to fix itself. Peru needs serious leadership that extends beyond day-to-day governing responsibilities. Boluarte’s inability to manage the current crisis demonstrates she is hardly in any position to effect a deeper reform. She will be held back both by the large majority of the public that is angry at all politicians as well as the manipulations of both rightwing and leftwing political movements that view this moment as an opportunity to improve their position.
Peru is challenged because the powers inside the government fight each other, and the voices from outside of the government disagree with one another on the path forward. The immediate catharsis of popular mobilization will not satisfy the need for fundamental changes in Peru’s political system, and these changes will not happen without consensus. Once again, as seen in Chile, it’s easier to unite protesters to demand a new constitution than to actually create a process that writes a new constitution that everyone supports.
Today’s NYT also covers the protests and the challenge for Peru, linking to this article by Scott Mainwaring and Aníbal Pérez-Liñán in the Journal of Democracy. The WSJ frames the Peru protests as part of a broader regional protest wave.