Latin America is prone to political instability, but Peru belongs in a category of its own. On December 7, Dina Boluarte was sworn in as the country’s sixth president in as many years. Hours earlier, her unpopular and hapless predecessor, leftist President Pedro Castillo, had tried to shut down the Peruvian Congress and rule by decree. This was all in an attempt to avoid a looming impeachment vote in Congress and prosecution on half a dozen criminal charges. In the maelstrom that followed, the police and the military refused to back Castillo. He was impeached and arrested, and Boluarte, until then the vice president, replaced Castillo, following the constitutional line of succession.

The dizzying pace of events was not unusual for Peru, where one other president has been impeached and two have resigned under pressure since 2018. But the scope and scale of the violence that has followed Castillo’s impeachment and Boluarte’s ascension to power is new—and marks a tragic escalation of Peru’s years-long political crisis. Three in four Peruvians disapproved of Castillo’s chaotic presidency, which pursued no discernible policy agenda besides Castillo’s persistent effort to avoid prosecution. Castillo swapped out a cabinet minister, on average, every six days. A majority of Peruvians also rejected his attempt to suspend the constitution. But an even larger share disapprove of the Congress, which is filled with self-serving factions under investigation for corruption. Right-wing members of Congress, who never publicly accepted Castillo’s 2021 election—baselessly alleging it was the outcome of fraud—are celebrating his downfall. At the same time, tens of thousands of Peruvians have taken to the streets in the country’s rural Andean highlands, Castillo’s birthplace and his last bastion of support. They are calling for Congress to be shut down and for general elections to be held immediately, which would require Peruvians to go to the polls roughly three years ahead of schedule.

The protests have escalated quickly. Some demonstrators have kidnapped and injured police, burned courthouses and prosecutors’ offices, and attacked journalists and ambulances attempting to circumvent roadblocks. Police have responded brutally and disproportionately, firing live rounds at nonviolent protesters and passersby. At least 50 people have died in the crackdown so far, including minors as young as 15. Many have died at the hands of police and some have died as roadblocks impeded ambulances. Eighteen Peruvians, including one police officer, were killed in a single day, January 9, as police retook control of an airport occupied by protesters in the southern city of Juliaca. Boluarte—who has not done all in her power to hold the police accountable for their use of disproportionate force—has seen her public support plummet. Already politically isolated, she has drawn right-wing legislators ever closer, despite their tone-deaf and hostile response to the protests.  

Under popular pressure, Congress has tentatively voted to speed up general elections to April 2024—two years ahead of schedule but far too late for most Peruvians. Tensions are likely to persist until Congress takes a final vote in February on a new election timeline. Boluarte and Congress simply lack the legitimacy to lead.

Yet Peru’s troubles go deeper than the conflict over the election calendar. Even if the president and the entire Congress resigned tomorrow, democratic erosion would likely persist. That is because Peru is afflicted by a more serious issue: the weaponization of checks and balances by both branches of government. It is too easy for Congress to impeach the president and for the president to shut down Congress. Until reforms prevent the president and Congress from abusing their powers to rein in each other, Peru will continue to spiral. 

CHECKERED PAST

Peru’s history was not fertile ground for the creation of a stable democracy. Economic inequality as well as racism against the country’s sizable Indigenous minority has long undermined Peruvians’ civil rights. From the 1980s to the early 1990s, Shining Path, a brutal Maoist insurgency, wreaked havoc on civilians and battled a merciless state-led counterinsurgency campaign. The scars of the conflict remain, as does the yawning gap in welfare between Peru’s most prosperous cities and the impoverished countryside, where one in five Peruvians lives.

But history fails to explain Peru’s current political crisis, which started only a few years ago. Between 2000, when Peru returned to democracy, and 2016, the country’s politics were relatively stable and seemed to defy the weight of its history. In the years after 2000, Peru accomplished what few post-authoritarian states ever do, purging state institutions of hundreds of accomplices of the old regime and convicting dozens. Among those convicted was Alberto Fujimori, Peru’s autocrat from 1992 to 2000, for human rights abuses.

The democracy that emerged after 2000 was raucous, politically fragmented, and corrupt—but it was, indeed, a democracy. In 2017, Freedom House ranked Peru above Argentina and Brazil for press freedom, and Peru’s increasingly independent judiciary probed corruption to a degree that is unusual in Latin America. Presidents butted heads with Congress, but until 2018, each president finished his term. Meanwhile, the economy boomed, doubling in size between 2001 and 2014. Poverty dropped from 54.8 to 22.7 percent over the same years—one of the largest such reductions in Latin America. To be sure, social conflicts—particularly protests against mining—still simmered, sometimes erupting into violence. But few expected the country’s democracy to reach today’s level of instability.

WHERE IT WENT WRONG

That was, until 2016. In that year, normal political rivalries gave way to a winner-takes-all brawl that threatened Peru’s institutions. The cause was an unusually nasty election that ignited long-standing tensions between Peruvians who admired Fujimori for vanquishing the Shining Path and hyperinflation and anti-Fujimoristas who saw him as democracy’s biggest menace.  

The 2016 elections put foes at the head of the presidency and Congress: Pedro Pablo Kuczynski, a center-right technocrat, became president; Keiko Fujimori, Alberto Fujimori’s daughter, narrowly lost the presidential race, but her party gained control of Congress. Their animosity was less ideological than personal. Both ran as conservative free marketers. But in the final weeks of his presidential campaign, Kuczynski attacked Keiko Fujimori in a bid to pick up anti-Fujimorista votes, insinuating that she was a “thief” bent on creating “a narco-state that will kill us all.” After she lost the presidential race by just 41,000 votes, Fujimori exacted revenge by wielding her legislative majority to obstruct Kuczynski’s government at every turn, using little-tested constitutional provisions to force the resignation of cabinet ministers and threaten Kuczynski with impeachment.

Kuczynski, who was under investigation for corruption, resigned in March 2018 rather than face removal by Congress. He handed Peru’s top job over to then Vice President Martín Vizcarra, who charged headlong into a new round of conflicts with Congress. There were many good reasons to continue the fight against Congress—not least because lawmakers were holding up badly needed anticorruption reforms—but Vizcarra’s confrontations also whipped up support from many Peruvians who wanted to see venal lawmakers humbled. In late 2019, Vizcarra invoked a controversial constitutional clause to justify suspending Congress in a move later ratified by the Constitutional Tribunal. But new legislative elections, held amid Peru’s devastating COVID-19 pandemic, did not quiet the institutional melee. Instead, the new Congress impeached Vizcarra after prosecutors opened an investigation into corruption he allegedly committed before he became president. Manuel Merino, the head of Congress who replaced Vizcarra in late 2020, resigned the presidency after a deadly police response to mass protests in Lima discredited his government and most of his cabinet resigned.  

As presidents and Congress battled, Peru’s judiciary grew increasingly independent. Allegations, most recently lobbed by Castillo, that prosecutors are beholden to a secret political agenda are wrong: since 2016, prosecutors have investigated virtually all the titans of Peruvian politics—left, right, and center—affording no special treatment to any political group or party. The flip side of Peru’s strong judicial checks on power is that the attorney general’s office has become an existential threat to sitting officeholders: after leaving office, they lose immunity from prosecution. If they have done wrong, they are likely to find themselves in prosecutors’ cross hairs. Perhaps it is not surprising, then, that Castillo’s first act after declaring one-man rule was to order the detention of Attorney General Patricia Benavides, according to Raúl Enrique Alfaro, the general commander of the Peruvian police.

Checks and balances are necessary for the functioning of any democracy. But over the past six years, they have started to backfire in Peru. Once checks and balances became tools to overpower the other branches of government, it was only a matter of time before a democratic disaster emerged. 

A CONSTITUTIONAL FIX

Peru’s crisis, years in the making, will not be easy to walk back. In the short term, it is hard to see how Boluarte and Congress, lacking broad-based legitimacy, can preside over anything more than continued democratic decline. In the long term, moving past the impasse will require constitutional reforms compelling both Congress and the executive to cede at least some of the powers they have routinely used to threaten the other. At this point, Congress can impeach a president for “permanent moral incapacity,” the vague grounds on which it tried and failed twice to boot Castillo from office. And the president needs only two votes of no confidence from legislators to shut Congress down.

On January 16, Peru’s Congress passed a bill to eliminate the president’s power to call confidence votes on his cabinet, which would weaken the presidency vis-à-vis Congress. The proposal will now be put to a popular referendum. But rather than a solution, this maneuver is an attempt by Congress to vanquish the executive once and for all. It is not enough for only one branch of government to be defanged. A system in which Congress controls the presidency is no better than Peru’s status quo of executive-legislative combat. Until constitutional reforms temper the powers of both the presidency and Congress, Peru will remain politically unstable. 

Still, politicians could adopt a series of steps that might quell the immediate crisis. The Boluarte government can take responsibility for one of the bloodiest recent crackdowns on civil protest in a Latin American democracy and work to prevent future abuses. It is encouraging that prosecutors promptly announced investigations into government officials—including Boluarte and Alberto Otálora, the prime minister—for protesters’ deaths. But the Boluarte government must do more than simply collaborate with investigators; it must ensure that police de-escalate protests. Those who engaged in the excessive use of force, moreover, should be held accountable.

Factions in Congress—including right-wingers and lawmakers associated with Castillo’s own far-left Free Peru Party—must also be part of the solution. Currently, both political cliques are acting as spoilers, conditioning their support for early elections on fringe demands. The leaders of Free Peru want a full constitutional rewrite process alongside new elections, despite recent polls from IPSOS, the country’s most reputable polling agency, that show only one-third of Peruvians support the proposal. Right-wing lawmakers are demanding the replacement of the country’s independent electoral authorities, whom they continue to baselessly accuse of fraud for validating Castillo’s 2021 election. Both sides are holding early elections—the near-term palliative for Peru’s crisis—for ransom in exchange for their partisan demands. For Peru to heal, they should stop putting their narrow agendas above all else and commit to holding elections in April 2024 (a proposition they will have to vote on in February 2023)—or, ideally, move the elections to an even earlier date.

One thing is clear: without opening some type of escape valve—and fast—violence and instability are likely to build while the Boluarte government hemorrhages legitimacy. January 2023 marks the low point in Peru’s crisis—for now. Without a quick response, it might end up looking, in retrospect, like a missed opportunity to stop Peru’s democracy and stability from unraveling even further.

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  • WILL FREEMAN is a Ph.D. candidate in Politics at Princeton University and a 2022 Fulbright-Hays Scholar in Colombia, Guatemala, and Peru.
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