Impeachment of Peru’s President Worsens Democratic Erosion
On November 29, 2022, members of Perú’s Congress gathered in the capital city of Lima to vote on President Pedro Castillo Terrones’ impeachment. This came as the third motion to impeach Castillo on the grounds of ‘moral incapacity’, which has been invoked against numerous presidents in recent years. However, Castillo made an unexpected move when, just hours before he was set to appear before Congress, he issued a message declaring his intent to dissolve Congress and instate an emergency interim government. As a result, he was immediately removed from office and charged with sedition, with Vice President Dina Boluarte assuming office in his place.
Nationwide protests erupted that same week, with demonstrators calling for President Boluarte’s resignation and an immediate general election. The current leader has responded with inflammatory rhetoric, labeling protestors as terrorists and insurrectionists, and mobilizing the national guard to quell demonstrations. Protests have grown more violent as unrest grows and clashes with the police intensify, resulting in 60 deaths and over 1,500 hospitalizations as of February 2023.
For decades, democracy has been fraught in Peru. The authoritarian regime of populist Alberto Fujimori, lasting from 1990 to 2000, significantly damaged the nation’s democratic foundations and its political effects are still being felt. The post-Fujimori period has been one marked by instability: since the year 2000, Peru has seen nine presidents in office, with the last president to finish out his term leaving office in 2016. The dissolution of congress in an attempt to secure political power is also nothing new: Fujimori performed a self-coup in 1992 by dissolving congress and the judicial branch and, more recently, former president Martin Vizcarra was impeached after attempting to do the same in 2020.
Tensions between Peru’s last several presidents and Congress have remained high, with many characterizing the legislative body as obstructionist. Keiko Fujimori, daughter of the former dictator, has led a Congressional majority as head of the right-wing “Fuerza Popular” (Popular Force) party since 2016. The conservative ideology of ‘Fujimorismo’ remains widely popular amongst Peruvians, with Fujimori having come second in the last two general elections by razor-thin margins. Despite being unable to beat out Vizcarra nor Castillo for the presidential seat, she and other Fujimoristas in Congress have headed significant efforts to block anti-corruption legislation during both their terms.
Castillo himself is also no stranger to controversy– in fact, his political career has been marked by it since he rose to national prominence for his role in organizing a 60-day strike as head of a local teachers’ union in 2017. Within weeks, former Fujimorista president Pedro Pablo Kuczynski declared the strike illegal and claimed that Castillo belonged to the Marxist-Leninist-Maoist terrorist group Modavef, an organization born from the now disbanded Sendero Luminoso (Shining Path) party which was responsible for what is referred to as the ‘epoch of terrorism in Peru’ between 1980 and 2000. While there is evidence indicating that many of the teachers involved in the 2017 strike were registered members of the Modavef party, there is none implying that Castillo himself shared their views.
Nevertheless, Castillo continued onward with his political endeavors and began preparing to run in the 2021 presidential election under the left-wing party Peru Libre (Free Peru). In a nation where presidents are typically wealthy businessmen or lawyers, a candidate like Castillo garnered international attention– an indigenous, working class schoolteacher from an Andean village who is also an outspoken Marxist. Many Peruvians felt that having somebody like Castillo in office would ensure that their needs were met, as he had firsthand experience with their struggles. His primary campaign promises were to nationalize the mineral-rich country’s mining system and to focus government resources on improving the livelihoods of those in poverty, most of whom belong to rural indigenous communities. Considering that nearly one-third of Peruvians are currently living in poverty and have become disillusioned with mainstream politicians, it comes as no great surprise that Castillo was able to ascend to the presidency.
Castillo defeated right-wing Fujimori by 44,000 votes and was declared president in July 2021. However, his administration’s image was immediately marred with controversy as Fujimori began hurling false accusations of election fraud at both Castillo and his supporters. In addition, the nation as a whole began to scrutinize the ties between Castillo and the leader of his Perú Libre party, Vladimir Cerrón, a former Marxist governor who was tried and convicted of political corruption and barred from running for office. Many, including Fujimoristas, feel that Cerrón is the man behind Castillo’s rapid rise to power and have continuously referred to him as a 'puppet master’.
These rumors of corruption and scandal significantly impacted Castillo’s popularity amongst Peruvians, with his approval rate dropping by almost 10% within his first months as president. His first year as president was a particularly tumultuous one, seeing 50 members of his cabinet removed from office due to voicing their sympathy for terrorists belonging to the Shining Light group. As Castillo continued to distance himself from the more radical views supported by his own party, he began to lose their support, with Cerrón lambasting him as a ‘moderate’. Other recent scandals involving members of the Perú Libre party range from bribery and police corruption to hosting parties during COVID-19 lockdowns. Furthermore, inflation in Peru reached its highest level in over 25 years under his economic policies, causing many of his impoverished, rural supporters to switch from fervently supporting Castillo to rejecting him. This combination of factors led to Castillo’s approval rate reaching a record low of just 19%.
Political tensions grew in 2022 as Fujimori began to call for Castillo’s removal from office when his disapproval reached its peak. While her first two attempts to impeach the former president failed, the third succeeded as a result of his attempted self-coup. Public opinion on the subject is heavily divided, with half of the citizens believing that Castillo was justified in his attempt to dissolve Congress and half believing the opposite. Even more split is citizens’ overall assessment of his presidency: of those polled, 29% feel neutral about his performance as head of state, 27% feel that he performed well, and 42% feel that he performed poorly. One thing that the majority of Peruvians can agree on is the need for a general election, as 80% agreed that one must be held before 2026.
Whether in support of Fujimori, Castillo, or neither, one thing is clear– Peruvian citizens want the opportunity to choose their own leaders in a fair, transparent, and democratic manner.
The nation’s next general election is scheduled for 2026, something which the vast majority of citizens feel is far too long away. With President Boluarte refusing to resign and protests continuing in response, the future of democracy in Peru remains uncertain.