The World This Year

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The World This Year
Peru in 2023: Political Tensions, Civil Unrest, and Governance Issues

  Richa Chandola
Richa Chandola is an independent scholar.

The political crisis in Peru escalated on 07 December 2022, when then-President Pedro Castillo announced, among other measures, the temporary dissolution of the Congress and a reorganization of the judiciary. The announcement, which came hours before a vote was to be held in Congress regarding his dismissal over corruption allegations, was termed an attempted coup. In response, the Congress, dominated by right-wing parties, approved his removal from office on the same day. Castillo's supporters considered the move a legislative coup to oust his government. 

Castillo, a self-declared Marxist, had come to power after winning the second round of presidential elections in June 2021. He had defeated the right-wing candidate, Keiko Fujimori, the daughter of former dictator Alberto Fujimori, who ruled the country between 1990 and 2000. Since assuming office, Castillo had faced many challenges to his presidency from right-wing forces in the legislature, the military, the business elite, and opposition political parties. He had survived two previous impeachment attempts and several protests against his government. 

Castillo, along with several of his family members and colleagues, is currently being investigated over several allegations of corruption. He was arrested soon after his ouster and continues to remain in prison after the courts approved an 18-month pre-trial detention for him.

After Castillo was removed, Vice President Dina Boluarte assumed the presidency of the country with the backing of Congress. As one of her first steps as the newly appointed President, Boluarte declared a 30-day national state of emergency on 14 December, fearing protests from pro-Castillo supporters. Despite the move, massive protests immediately broke out after Castillo's removal. 

The protesters were calling for Boluarte's resignation, early elections, and the establishment of a Constituent Assembly to draft a new constitution for the country. Boluarte deployed the security forces in an attempt to crush the popular protests. The police and military crackdown that followed led to several casualties. In the immediate aftermath of Castillo's ousters, at least 22 protesters were killed and over 600 injured, according to several media reports.

Major Developments in 2023
First, the mass protests. It started after Castillo's ouster and continued till March, despite the state of emergency that the Boluarte government had extended. Under the emergency provisions, the right to assembly was suspended, and freedom of movement was restricted, among other things. However, defiant protesters continued to take to the streets in the tens of thousands, backed by the country's largest federation of labour unions and the largest association of Indigenous peoples. Disenchanted with the country's government and political institutions, they set up blockades in and around major cities of Peru. The boiling public anger was evident from reports of fires being staged and attacks on police stations and television networks.

Second, widespread anger against Boluarte. All the major polls indicated that most Peruvians lacked trust in Boluarte's presidency and the Congress. According to a survey conducted by the Institute of Peruvian Studies (IEP), by late February, Boluarte's disapproval rating had risen to 77 per cent from the 71 per cent recorded a month earlier, while disapproval for the Congress had jumped from 88 per cent to 90 per cent. It also reported that 69 per cent of the respondents wanted fresh general elections to be held in 2023, 47 per cent wanted reforms to the existing constitution, and 36 per cent favoured adopting an entirely new constitution.

As Boluarte resorted to extended emergency provisions to curb these protests, severe repression of protesters ensued. Violent clashes between the security forces and the protesters were reported in several instances. The security agencies are accused of using excessive force and committing extrajudicial killings. By late March, an estimated 67 protesters had been killed.

Third, the Congress's efforts to impeach the President. In January, an impeachment motion was introduced against Boluarte in Congress, calling for her removal on the grounds of "moral incapacity" over a large number of protestor deaths. However, the motion was defeated in early April with a congressional vote of 64-37. In May, the Supreme Court of Peru criminalized demonstrations, stating that the mass protests had no constitutional protection.

Fourth, the call for early elections and continuing public unrest. This has been among the main demands of the protesters but was also consistently shot down. Even though Boluarte had stated in her first presidential address that she would govern until July 2026, when Castillo's term would have officially ended, she was forced to call for early elections in 2023 in the face of the mass protests against her presidency. The Congress had rejected this call but voted in favour of holding elections in April 2024, subject to future approval. However, the Congress later rejected this demand on at least five occasions, according to Peru's official gazette. In June, Boluarte completely closed the calls for early elections, saying that she would complete her full term till 2026. Meanwhile, large-scale protests continued in the country as protesters again organized a "takeover" of Lima in July, the third such takeover since January, and occupied several parts of the capital for almost a week. These protests were being organized by the National Unitary Co-ordinator of Struggle, an umbrella group for democracy organizations in the country, which included social movements, trade unions, and Indigenous groups.

The protesters demanded Castillo's release, Boluarte's resignation, and the dissolution of Congress. A significant section of the protesters also called for a new constitution to replace the existing one adopted in 1993 under the rule of Alberto Fujimori. Another major demand raised was for action to be taken against the perpetrators of the violence on protesters and the brutal use of force during previous protests.

Boluarte is currently facing investigation by the Attorney General's office for her role in the violent suppression of protests. Human rights organizations have filed two lawsuits against Boluarte and several of her ministers and police chiefs for the massacres of pro-Castillo supporters in the Ayacucho Region and the Apurímac Region. Despite the severe crackdown, protesters have remained steadfastly on the streets and another "takeover" of Lima was again organized by them as recently as on 02 December.

Major Issues in 2023
First, the democratic backslide. Even before last year's events, Peru had been experiencing an erosion of its democratic order. The democratic consensus in the country is now at its weakest, with political instability at its core but with longstanding issues of widespread corruption, inequality, and discrimination. Leaders from across the political spectrum, from the right-wing to the left, have undermined democratic processes and institutions in the country. While the right-wing leadership had challenged the popular vote in favour of Castillo and his Free Peru party in the 2021 elections, his government attempted to dissolve the Congress in December 2022. In 2023, despite the initial explicit support of the conservatives, it has been tough for Boluarte to govern, even though she has relied on an authoritarian strategy. Under the Castillo government, Boluarte had served as the Vice President and the Minister for development and social inclusion. She lacks official party backing in Congress and has been propped up by an ad hoc alliance. Public trust in her presidency remains extremely low as she is considered inexperienced and unable to govern amid the mass protests. Her actions against the protesters have also come under heavy criticism within Peru and internationally. 

Second, the public anger. There is major public anger over the scores of protesters killed and injured during the protests. While most observers accept that some of the protests had turned violent, the response by the security forces is considered to be disproportionate and indiscriminate. 

Inflation and a growing wealth gap have also fuelled the mass protests. A majority of the protest groups represent rural and Indigenous communities, who have significant grievances and face inequalities concerning the population in urban and coastal areas that are more affluent. The action against Indigenous groups has been termed as racism by various rights organizations.

The people are also agitated that the Congress and the President have rejected the demand for early elections. Corruption across the legislature and the executive is a major cause of concern and has added to the ongoing instability. While the public is dissatisfied with the executive branch, Congress is focused on removing all checks on its power and is accused of trying to control the electoral authorities. At the same time, the independence of the judiciary is also in question. The Congress has replaced six of the seven judges of the Constitutional Court in what many consider to be a sham selection process with no virtual choice given as only six names were proposed for the six seats. The selection of the Ombudsperson has also been through a questionable process.

Meanwhile, the political crisis and civil unrest also dent economic activity with constant shutdowns, restrictions, and roadblocks, particularly impacting sectors like mining, tourism and agriculture. Inflation rates in the country have soared to above eight per cent, the highest in over two decades. In March, Cyclone Yaku caused severe damage with heavy flooding, leading to the loss of lives and infrastructural damage. The loss to the economy due to the cyclone was estimated to be around EUR 300 million.

Third, the external fallout of internal developments. Political changes in Peru have also impacted its relations with other countries in the region, such as Argentina, Bolivia, Colombia and Mexico. The left-wing presidents of these countries have denounced Castillo's ouster and arrest. Mexico's decision to offer asylum to the former President's family even caused a diplomatic issue with the Peruvian authorities, which asked the Mexican ambassador in Lima to leave the country. In February 2023, Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador, while rejecting the handover of the leadership of the Pacific Alliance to Boluarte, said that he did not want to 'legitimize a coup'.

2024: Looking Ahead
In 2023, the political crisis and mass civil unrest in Peru has already resulted in various governance issues. While the government is heavily involved in suppressing the widespread protests, effective policymaking has suffered a severe setback. Many of the government's decisions have been opposed by the public. At the same time, political tensions between the legislature and the executive also continue to mar governance. According to political analysts, the legislature has consistently used its wide powers of oversight and political control to strip the presidential office. Boluarte has emerged as Peru's sixth president in just five years. 

Major public mistrust exists in the democratic institutions, including the Ombudsperson and the Attorney General's office. Public functionaries across the board face widespread corruption allegations and other charges, leading to tensions between different political actors and institutions. The traditional political parties, which have a majority in the parliament, also have deep connections with and power over the judicial authorities, which has led to dwindling public trust in judicial independence.

On the other end, differences have also emerged among sections of protesters regarding the demands raised; for example, many protesters are not adamant about Castillo's release from prison but are focused on the larger issue of systemic reform. There are also disagreements on the extent of political changes required and what a new constitution for the country would look like. Additionally, some parts of the population, especially those in urban areas, are experiencing fatigue from the constant protests and want to return to normalcy to carry about their daily businesses and jobs.

Finally, there are bound to be economic consequences of the prolonged unrest. The predicted GDP growth rate was trimmed from 3 per cent last year to below 2.7 per cent after the political crisis in December. It dipped to 1.2 per cent in January 2023 due to the mass civil protests that paralyzed labour, blocked roads, and shut down marketplaces. The Central Reserve Bank of Peru has revised its 2023 growth estimate from 2.9 per cent to 2.7 per cent.

Besides lowering the GDP growth rate, the country's mining sector is also affected. The central bank had stated that private investment in this crucial sector could decline as much as 16.7 per cent in 2023, a trend likely to continue in the coming year. During protests, the copper and lithium mines in the highlands are at risk of being occupied by protesters, affecting production, which has already been observed in some areas this year. Indigenous communities that reside in the regions where most of the mining occurs fiercely oppose the privatization of these natural resources and demand a share in their revenues.

In this regard, the situation in Peru may be compared to the neighbouring country of Bolivia. In 2019, a right-wing coup removed Bolivia's leftist President Evo Morales, an Indigenous leader, and made way for a new government under Jeanine Áñez. Like Boluarte, Áñez took a heavy-handed approach to suppress the mass protests against her government, which resulted in several deaths. She then proceeded to privatize Bolivia's vast lithium reserves quickly. Boluarte also decided on 10 April to grant a license to a Canadian company to explore lithium in Peru's southern Puno Region. The local community, on economic and environmental grounds, has heavily opposed the move.

However, in the case of Bolivia, Morales' MAS (Movement for Socialism–Political Instrument for the Sovereignty of the Peoples) party eventually came back to power after winning the subsequent elections, and Áñez received a 10-year prison term in 2022. 

In Peru, it may be expected that the crisis and civil unrest will continue, especially if elections are not held soon. It also remains to be seen if Boluarte's government will survive any future attacks against it in Congress or try to address the concerns of the protesters, including demands like constitutional change. So far, the protests have only been met with repression as the political infighting continues. Meanwhile, Peru has made it difficult to govern the country.

About the author
Richa Chandola is an independent scholar.

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