Peru Needs a New Constitution

The country went through three presidents in a week in November—and it might soon have another if it doesn’t pursue a constitutional referendum like neighboring Chile.

A demonstrator supporting ousted President Martín Vizcarra holds a Peruvian flag during a protest against the government of then-interim President Manuel Merino in Lima on Nov. 14.
A demonstrator supporting ousted President Martín Vizcarra holds a Peruvian flag during a protest against the government of then-interim President Manuel Merino in Lima on Nov. 14. Ernesto Benavides/AFP via Getty Images

Peru cycled through three different presidents in a week last month—a record even in a country notorious for shifting political winds. Popular demonstrations have spilled onto the streets, led by young people who are advocating for major institutional changes in the country. Some are pushing for a referendum on a new constitution in the same way that demonstrators in Chile successfully did this past year. Peru should follow in Chile’s footsteps and write a new constitution.

Peru’s political system is facing a serious crisis of legitimacy. The country has been ravaged by COVID-19, exposing major gaps and inefficiencies in its health care system. All of its former elected presidents are either jailed or facing corruption charges. Congress is deeply unpopular and inexperienced. Over half of its members are under investigation for corruption, some of whom are linked to the political party of the daughter of the country’s last dictator, Alberto Fujimori. And in spite of the country’s enviable record of economic growth over the last two decades, inequality remains sky-high, and many Peruvians remain mired in poverty.

It is no surprise that against this backdrop, Peru’s constitution is facing renewed scrutiny. The current constitution was written under the authoritarian rule of Fujimori in 1993, which echoes the authoritarian roots of Chile’s current constitution that was forged under the iron fist of Augusto Pinochet. Indeed, my research indicates that many young democracies operate under constitutions written in their authoritarian past.

Like Chile’s Pinochet-era constitution, Peru’s constitution embeds a host of elements that make it unresponsive to popular demands. Too much power is concentrated in an unaccountable Congress. Indigenous groups are underrepresented in politics. Peripheral regions of the country are often ignored when it comes to policymaking. The judiciary is unduly subject to political pressure. And some of the social and economic rights that the constitution enshrines are no longer in keeping with shifting social norms.

A new constitution could address these issues head on and, in doing so, forge a new, more inclusive and democratic social contract that would put an end to Peru’s chronic political instability and underpin shared prosperity.

Peru needs a stronger government that can help to level the playing field so that more of its citizens can flourish. The country needs fairer taxation and social spending oriented toward creating opportunity for the middle and lower classes. Greater protections for local populations against the negative consequences of an extractivist economy that is heavily weighted toward mining are long overdue. Massive investment in basic infrastructure that can both reduce transaction costs in everyday business and link the country’s peripheries more tightly to its economic hubs to encourage shared prosperity is sorely needed. And there should be stronger affirmative action policies for the country’s sizable Indigenous population, which is disproportionately poor.

But a stronger government alone can end up backfiring without accompanying reforms. The judicial system, for instance, requires an overhaul to ensure much greater independence from political pressure and to insulate against corruption. And there should be greater revenue-sharing with regional governments to promote more even growth across the country. A central government that is too powerful and subject to corruption could cause more problems than it solves.

Diagnosing Peru’s political ills has always been easier than rectifying them.A new constitution for Peru can help to encourage accountability. Disgusted with the corruption and naked exercise of power in the service of self-interest, Peruvians recently voted to eliminate the possibility of reelection for members of Congress. But this gets rid of incentives for representatives to build issue expertise and reputations for competency. Responsibility can be restored with longer term limits—but again, this should be paired with judicial reform so that corruption can be more effectively investigated and prosecuted.

The country also needs to correct current imbalances in power across government branches. It should rid the constitution of a clause that enables Congress to remove a president for “moral incapacity.” The clause is too ambiguous and has been used to oust presidents who are simply at odds with Congress. This was the case with Martín Vizcarra, whose impeachment on Nov. 9 set in motion the current crisis and the parade of new presidents.

Diagnosing Peru’s political ills has always been easier than rectifying them. The process of a constitutional overhaul faces more obstacles than Chile did due to the fractionalization and weakness of Peru’s political parties and the fact that many are headed by outsized, and often dubious, personalities. The largest party in Congress, Popular Action, does not even hold 20 percent of legislative seats. Furthermore, most parties are internally ideologically divided, and political factionalization and poverty will complicate Peru’s path to reform.

There are also other critical differences between Chile and Peru that could make Peru’s path to reform more difficult. Chile is a development success story. Despite the brutality of its dictatorship under Pinochet, the country has blossomed into one of the most developed countries in the region. Peru, by contrast, is far poorer in spite of the economic stability and growth it has enjoyed in the last two decades.

Nonetheless, there has been a marked shift in the political debate in recent months from whether to reform the constitution to how to reform it. Politicians from across the spectrum along with constitutional scholars are rapidly converging on reform. There is a snowballing call for a referendum on the nature of constitutional change to occur in tandem with the next elections scheduled for 2021.

The current president, Francisco Sagasti, says that a referendum for a new constitution is not the current priority and should be shelved for a later date. A growing number of Peruvians think otherwise. Even if Sagasti’s reputation as an even-keeled statesman can keep him in office as a caretaker until the next election, the country is barreling toward another political reckoning. If he does not heed citizens’ calls for constitutional reform, Peru might have yet another president in short order.

Michael Albertus is an associate professor of Political Science at the University of Chicago. He is author, most recently, of Authoritarianism and the Elite Origins of Democracy.

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