Castillo’s Ouster Is Not the End of Peru’s Political Crisis

The unfortunate truth is that Peru’s political crisis will likely get worse before it gets better.

By , a British journalist based in Lima, Peru.
A person in a light blue polo shirt stands before police holding a Peruvian flag.
A person in a light blue polo shirt stands before police holding a Peruvian flag.
A supporter of Pedro Castillo, Peru's former president, waves a national flag in front of riot police during a protest to demand the closure of Congress and the release of Castillo in downtown Lima on Dec. 15. Martin Bernetti/AFP via Getty Images

After the successful fast-track impeachment of Peru’s former president, Pedro Castillo, on Dec. 7, euphoric lawmakers posed for photographs on the floor of the country’s Congress, laughing and giving thumbs-up. Their elation was understandable. For nearly 17 months, Castillo’s chaotic administration had staggered from corruption scandal to policy failure and back again while repeatedly clashing with lawmakers, climaxing in Castillo’s abrupt TV announcement just hours earlier that—in a flagrant violation of the nation’s constitution—he was going to dissolve Congress and rule by decree.

But the triumphalism could hardly have been more inappropriate. Not because Castillo, who faces six separate corruption investigations, did not deserve impeachment; aside from the authoritarian denouement, his brief period in office has done deep and lasting damage to Peru’s institutions and economy, seeing the country’s credit rating downgraded while Castillo packed the public bureaucracy with a mix of unqualified and ethically unfit apparatchiks. Nor even because Peruvians are suffering intensely right now, all while being ignored by the feuding far-left executive and ultraconservative legislators; half are experiencing food insecurity, double the pre-pandemic level, and many more are suffering the human and economic aftereffects of the pandemic, with Peru registering the world’s highest COVID-19 mortality rate.

What was truly jarring about the lawmakers’ joy was that Castillo’s ouster in no way marks the end of Peru’s political crisis, which has been simmering since 2016. More likely is that it is merely another staging post in the country’s descent into polarization, ungovernability, and—in a worst-case scenario—a potential resurgence, albeit on a smaller scale, of the violence of the 1980s and ’90s that, according to the official Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s final report, claimed the lives of nearly 70,000 Peruvians, mainly the rural poor caught in the crossfire of Maoist insurgents and the security forces seeking to crush them. The unfortunate truth is that Peru’s political and social turmoil will likely get worse before it gets better. The question is by how much.

After the successful fast-track impeachment of Peru’s former president, Pedro Castillo, on Dec. 7, euphoric lawmakers posed for photographs on the floor of the country’s Congress, laughing and giving thumbs-up. Their elation was understandable. For nearly 17 months, Castillo’s chaotic administration had staggered from corruption scandal to policy failure and back again while repeatedly clashing with lawmakers, climaxing in Castillo’s abrupt TV announcement just hours earlier that—in a flagrant violation of the nation’s constitution—he was going to dissolve Congress and rule by decree.

But the triumphalism could hardly have been more inappropriate. Not because Castillo, who faces six separate corruption investigations, did not deserve impeachment; aside from the authoritarian denouement, his brief period in office has done deep and lasting damage to Peru’s institutions and economy, seeing the country’s credit rating downgraded while Castillo packed the public bureaucracy with a mix of unqualified and ethically unfit apparatchiks. Nor even because Peruvians are suffering intensely right now, all while being ignored by the feuding far-left executive and ultraconservative legislators; half are experiencing food insecurity, double the pre-pandemic level, and many more are suffering the human and economic aftereffects of the pandemic, with Peru registering the world’s highest COVID-19 mortality rate.

What was truly jarring about the lawmakers’ joy was that Castillo’s ouster in no way marks the end of Peru’s political crisis, which has been simmering since 2016. More likely is that it is merely another staging post in the country’s descent into polarization, ungovernability, and—in a worst-case scenario—a potential resurgence, albeit on a smaller scale, of the violence of the 1980s and ’90s that, according to the official Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s final report, claimed the lives of nearly 70,000 Peruvians, mainly the rural poor caught in the crossfire of Maoist insurgents and the security forces seeking to crush them. The unfortunate truth is that Peru’s political and social turmoil will likely get worse before it gets better. The question is by how much.

There are three reasons for this. The first is that Castillo’s ouster, however justified, has unleashed a wave of dangerous anti-system sentiment among the many poor Peruvians who were taken in by his populist promises to reverse their society’s deep inequalities and injustices, entrenched over centuries since the Spanish conquest. Many of them have good reason to believe that neither Peru’s democracy nor capitalism has provided them with any tangible benefits. The second is that Peru’s electoral architecture and party system mean that, barring extensive reform, any new elections will simply usher in more of the same unrepresentative politicking and pointless clashes between the executive and legislature that fail to address citizens’ often desperate needs. The final reason is that there is not a single actor on Peru’s political horizons, be they a party or individual politician, with the skill, commitment, or electoral appeal to fill the leadership void.

Although members of Peru’s Congress may be in denial, the impeachment has created a storm of public fury that will likely sweep them from their own jobs in the coming months. Already, violent protests have broken out across the country—in particular in the mining and farming regions that voted heavily for Castillo in 2021—which led the government to declare a state of emergency on Wednesday. President Dina Boluarte, who stepped up from the vice presidency to replace Castillo, has recognized the public mood by calling for the next general election to be brought forward from 2026 to 2024. Although Castillo may have been a deeply disliked president, with a disapproval rating that hovered in the 60s in recent months, Congress is loathed even more, with its disapproval rating bouncing around in the 80s.

More importantly, nearly 90 percent of Peruvians, according to a poll by the Peruvian Studies Institute in November, believed that if Castillo were forced out, there should be a new general election, in a country where successive reelection, including for members of Congress, is prohibited. Legislators, desperate to hang on to their jobs—and the status, perks, and, in many cases, opportunities to monetize their elected positions through graft—to the end of the current fixed five-year term in July 2026, will in the coming months find it increasingly hard to resist the pressure for early elections.

Yet in Peru’s current political system, new elections will likely again yield unrepresentative and problematic results. Under the constitution, legislative elections coincide with the first round of presidential voting—when the vote is typically dispersed among more than a dozen different candidates—rather than the runoff. Recent presidents have thus never had a legislative majority. Indeed, most have found themselves without sufficient support in Congress to protect them from persecution by power-hungry lawmakers, often seeking to protect murky interests—from illegal gold mining to Peru’s poorly performing but lucrative private universities—against anti-corruption measures. One such president was Martín Vizcarra, who had 60 percent approval when he was successfully impeached in November 2020 on the spurious grounds of his supposed bribe-taking, which prosecutors have yet to demonstrate two years on.

That is just the start of the built-in weaknesses of Peru’s presidency. In the country’s hybrid presidential-parliamentary system, the president appoints a prime minister, who then appoints a cabinet. But that cabinet must pass a congressional vote of confidence—a vote that was intended to be routine but has become a modern trial by ordeal, with several cabinets being voted down in recent years. The president even requires congressional approval for international travel. A humiliated Pedro Pablo Kuczynski, the center-right president from 2016 to 2018, effectively had to beg to be allowed to attend the United Nations General Assembly in New York and a meeting with Pope Francis in the Vatican after lawmakers objected to him leaving the country.

Then there are the deep-seated problems within the legislature. Since members of Congress are not allowed to run for immediate reelection, most are legislative neophytes. There is also no senate, which might check the worst excesses of the current 130-member single-chamber Congress. In addition, there are several lawmakers for each electoral district, including 33 for the capital, Lima, a city of 10 million people, watering down the link between legislators and their constituents. Worst of all, however, is that Peru’s party system is essentially closed, with individual party bosses effectively owning party registrations and personally selecting candidates, a recipe for backroom dealing and corruption.

Barriers for new parties to register, including a requirement of 25,000 party members, are by design extremely high. Boluarte, who was kicked out of Castillo’s self-described Marxist-Leninist Free Peru party earlier this year, has signaled that she wants political reforms before any new elections. But she has yet to set out specific measures, and it remains to be seen whether she has the political skills to use the bully pulpit of the presidency to push recalcitrant members of Congress into curbing their own power and privileges.

Finally, were new elections held today, the three likely front-runners, at least initially, are populists with the potential to wreak even more havoc on both democracy and the ailing economy. The first is Antauro Humala, the extremist brother of Ollanta Humala, the center-left president from 2011 to 2016. Antauro Humala was recently released from prison, where he had been serving a lengthy jail sentence for leading a 2005 military uprising against the elected government in which several police officers were murdered. Along with his father, he advocates for “etnocacerismo,” their homemade ideology that espouses the supposed racial superiority of Andeans. Antauro Humala is calling for the execution of corrupt officials, including—as he has repeatedly made clear—his brother, Ollanta, who is facing a money-laundering trial over undeclared campaign funding.

The second is Rafael López-Aliaga, the ultraconservative mayor of Lima who has, without evidence, refused to acknowledge Castillo’s election victory as legitimate and even called for his death. A successful businessman accused of widespread tax evasion, he is also a devout Catholic who claims to be celibate and self-flagellate. That might seem like a private matter, but López-Aliaga is seeking to impose his personal morality on contemporary Peruvian society. Opposed to abortion in all circumstances, he has suggested that minors who become pregnant through rape will get over their trauma if they are put up in “five-star hotels.” He also said a paraplegic woman, who recently won her court battle for the right to euthanasia, should throw herself off a building rather than involve the state in her “private” problems.

And, once again, there is Keiko Fujimori—the daughter of the imprisoned 1990s strongman Alberto Fujimori—who lost the 2016 presidential election, despite her party winning 73 congressional seats, and then helped hound two presidents, Kuczynski and Vizcarra, from office. The narrow runner-up in the last three presidential elections, Fujimori retains a core of supporters despite facing her own looming corruption trial and possible decadeslong prison sentence for alleged money laundering and, according to prosecutors, leading a criminal organization within her Popular Force party—unless she can achieve presidential immunity.

Fujimori and López-Aliaga finished second and third in the first round of the 2021 election. Humala, meanwhile, has been polling at 12 percent. In Peru’s splintered political landscape, with more than a dozen deeply unpopular parties competing for power, just scraping into double figures in the first round—as Fujimori and Castillo did in April 2021—could be enough to make it to the runoff, where weary Peruvians typically end up having to choose the “lesser evil.”

In the long run, Castillo’s deserved ouster may thus mark another step in Peru’s descent into lethal ungovernability. Unless Boluarte, who like Castillo had never held elected office prior to last year, proves a more adept politician than she has so far shown herself to be, the window for avoiding a further downward spiral of citizens’ wrath, government illegitimacy, and extreme populism will quickly close.

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