Updated: Mar 19
By Gokul Krishnakumar
In early December 2022, Peru woke to a direct address from its leftist President, Pedro Castillo, who proclaimed a national emergency and proposed to replace the Congress with an ‘exceptional emergency government’. This event, described as a ‘self-coup’, sparked the current Peruvian crisis which has resulted in the deaths of at least 40 protestors at the hands of Peruvian state forces. In response to this address, the Peruvian Congress convened an emergency session and impeached Castillo with an overwhelming majority after failing to do so in their previous two attempts. This was accompanied by resignations from Castillo’s cabinet, his arrest and detainment on charges of ‘rebellion and conspiracy’ and culminated in Dina Boluarte, Castillo’s First Vice President, being appointed as the new President by the Congress. In response to this, protestors took to the streets demanding Boluarte’s resignation, a new constitution, Castillo’s release, and the dismissal of the Peruvian Congress. Many mainstream outlets have characterized this as a conflict triggered by power struggles between the legislature and executive. However, such a reading of events obscures other significant factors and depoliticizes this crisis to a degree by enabling the proliferation of simplistic narratives which lay the blame of triggering the crisis at Castillo’s feet and paint him as a corrupt individual who sought to hold on to power via a ‘self-coup’. However, such readings obscure the racial politics and class politics at play and above all the major role played by an increasingly obstructionist Peruvian Congress dominated by the Right and led by Fujimoristas.
The modern-day Peruvian Congress’ legitimacy lies in the 1993 constitution drafted by a Constituent Assembly dominated by Fujimoristas after opposition parties boycotted elections to the body to protest Alberto Fujimori’s self-coup. This constitution did not legally change the relationship between the executive, judiciary and legislative sections of the government. However, Fujimori bent these institutions to his will by stacking the judiciary with loyalists who would not oppose his increasingly brutal and authoritarian policies and also by converting the Fujimorista controlled Congress into a rubber stamp institution that approved these policies that were justified as either being necessary for development or to suppress the Shining Path insurgency. Fujimori’s particular brand of constitutional authoritarianism was also used to force through devastating neoliberal reforms. After Fujimori’s fall in 2001, the far-right Fujimoristas lost control of the Congress. However, under the leadership of Keiko Fujimori, Alberto Fujimori’s daughter, the Fujimoristas reorganised under the banner of a new political party (Popular Force) and clawed back their majority in the Parliament in 2016. They reverted to using the Congress as a tool to re-establish their supremacy in Peruvian politics by launching impeachment proceedings against the incumbent President. While the Fujimoristas pioneered the use of impeachments, they weren’t the only party that utilised them as it became an acceptable way to remove an executive that the legislative did not favour for both legitimate and illegitimate reasons. However, Fujimoristas have either supported impeachment attempts or used them to obtain political concessions. This cycle of impeachments resulted in the Peruvian Congress losing legitimacy in the eyes of the public and this sentiment sparked massive protests in 2020 after the Congress impeached a president who had initiated popular political reforms.
The leftist president Pedro Castillo and the current right-wing dominated Congress took power in the first elections held after these protests. Castillo defeated Keiko Fujimori by a wafer-thin margin which Fujimori sought to call into question by raising allegations of electoral fraud. When this attempt failed, the Right led by the Fujimoristas began a concerted effort to remove Castillo by attacking him from multiple fronts. The assault began during the election campaign as corporate media groups in Peru that are allied to Fujimori and control most media outlets in the country launched a racist smear campaign (terruqueo – often used against indigenous Peruvians by the Right) against Castillo seeking to falsely link him to communist insurgents. After Castillo became President, the media sharpened their attack by seeking to discredit ministers appointed to his Cabinet using largely the same tactics. The media worked largely hand in glove with the Right which moved to censure targeted ministers in the Congress. These attacks paralysed Castillo’s efforts to rule as he cycled through 78 ministers for 19 posts in 16 months constantly moderating as he shifted closer to the right in an effort to stave off the attack. In addition to this, the judiciary opened multiple investigations against Castillo and members of his family accusing them of various forms of corruption. Furthermore, the Congress also blocked multiple legislations sent for approval to the Congress which sought to implement policies targeting the upliftment of the poor. Last but not least, Fujimoristas used their tried and tested tactic of impeachment with the third such attempt succeeding as it prompted Castillo to launch his self-coup, which ultimately secured Congress an overwhelming majority to dismiss him. During this process, a politically immature Castillo saw his approval ratings plummet and even faced widespread protests in early March 2022 in response to the aforementioned alleged corruption charges. However, as the Congress impeached a President that symbolically represented the marginalised, many leftist and indigenous grassroots movements rallied to his cause.
Boluarte, who has been described as a political opportunist, has since allied with the Right and unleashed state police forces on the protestors. They have sought to suppress these protests by resorting to indiscriminate violence. In the space of a little less than two months, state police have massacred protestors in Juliaca and Ayacucho. Most of those murdered by state forces have been individuals hailing from poor Indigenous communities. This has resulted in Peru’s top prosecutor’s office launching inquires to investigate allegations of genocide levied against Boluarte’s government. Boluarte’s has responded to these protests by stubbornly declaring that she will not tender her resignation but has agreed to move elections up from 2026 to 2024. Protestors have begun marching on Lima in an effort to force immediate elections as they believe that the rich mestizo and white Peruvian elite (who support Boluarte and the right) centred around urban Peru have largely been able to ignore the protests by and massacres of poor indigenous protestors from rural Peru. Boluarte and her allies in government have resorted to the terruqueo strategy to discredit protestors and have claimed that they are being funded by ‘foreign’ forces. However, polls conducted show that Boluarte only has 28% approval in Lima while those ratings fall to a shocking 9% in rural Peru. Furthermore, Boluarte has become increasingly isolated in Latin America as many leaders have thrown their support firmly behind Castillo or the protestors with largely right wing governments supporting Boluarte’s government.
The current President and her cabinet have little legitimacy to rule while the Congress had an approval rating of just 18% even prior to the protests. Therefore, for democracy to return to Peru, it is necessary for Boluarte to begin acceding to the demands of the protestors. This is crucial as the thoroughly reviled Congress has already begun the process of drafting bills that target indigenous communities in Peru and attempted to oppose limited reforms aimed at advancing election dates even while it has a disapproval rating of 88%. In addition to this, only if the violence ends can the investigations into human rights violations demanded by the UN take place. It is morally impermissible for an executive and legislative so thoroughly reviled by its people to claim to represent them even as it violently suppresses protests against it. It is incumbent on the international community to facilitate the return of democracy in Peru by listening to the voices of the marginalised who have led protests calling for a more inclusive form of democratic governance.