The tumultuous inner workings of the Land of the Incas.
June 6, 2021
Staff Writer at Motus News
The Republic of Peru will celebrate its bicentenary this year, and yet, recent events in the political sphere do not convey the happiness of such a celebration. Throughout the last five years, Peru has had five presidents, two of them lasting less than a week, and another two currently being prosecuted. And now, two weeks away from the secondary presidential elections, the country is faced with an impossible choice between an antidemocratic communist and a far-right authoritarian, both of which will cause irreparable damage if allowed to. This sounds like a lot, and it begs the question: how did we end up here?
To understand the current situation, it’s necessary to introduce some historical context. The consequence of 300 years of colonial rule in Peru was the formation of a highly hierarchical society, which in turn allowed discrimination based on race, gender, and social class to flourish. One of the main problems the country faces is extreme centralization; 86% of national income comes from Lima, the capital, as well as 53% of the GDP. A third of the population lives in Lima. The rest, overwhelmingly of indigenous origin, live in poverty and barely receive any support from the state.
As a response to the oppression of indigenous peoples, Peru witnessed the bloodiest conflict of its history against the Shining Path, a terrorist organization of maoist ideology, from 1980 to 2002. It is estimated that 70,000 individuals lost their lives during the conflict, and 75% of these casualties were of indigenous origin. At the same time, President Alan García enacted poor economic policy, which led to extreme hyperinflation. The country was in social, political, and economic crisis.
Alberto Fujimori won the 1990 elections and enacted neoliberal economic reforms which stabilized the economy. However, the bulk of his proposed reforms, including the enactment of harsh anti-terrorist laws, did not go through Congress due to an opposing majority. Fujimori, with the support of the Army, carried out a self-coup, and shut down Congress, the judiciary, and all significant media. His reforms were enacted the following day and was additionally able to defeat terrorism. Although democracy was quickly reinstated and most of the population supported the coup, Fujimori stayed in power for the next 8 years, during which he controlled a large portion of the mainstream media, persecuted political opponents, and was responsible for several human rights violations (mostly related to paramilitary death squad activity and forced sterilization of more than 200 000 people). He remains a controversial character in Peruvian history.
Fast-forwarding to 2016, economist Pedro Pablo Kuczynski (known as PPK) was elected as president, winning with 50.12% of votes against recurrent candidate Keiko Fujimori. I was thirteen years old at this point. Although I personally wasn’t very interested in what was happening, we were all excited to have a very qualified president. Reality, however, does not care about expectations.
Congress was dominated by opposing parties. Fujimori vowed to govern through her party’s congressional majority and obstruct any political activity. As a result of this legislative obstructionism and a minor incident involving the minister of education and the prime minister, PPK’s cabinet was forced to resign in August 2017. In March 2018, he was forced to step down under suspicion of bribing Congressmen by approving construction projects in their respective regions in exchange for political favours. As we watched his last speech on the news, I was filled with dread.
Vice-president Martín Vizcarra took charge. Unfortunately for the country as a whole, political instability was far from over, as the obstructionist policies of Fuerza Popular were still in place.
He proposed a set of reforms which were concerned with four points: minor reforms for the Judiciary, regulation of political party financing, the prohibition of immediate reelection of members of Congress, and bicameralism (the existence of a Senate and a House of Representatives, instead of just a Parliament). The population was polled in November 2018, announcing their support for the first three reforms and vehemently rejected the fourth one, as it meant having more people in Congress. Reforms regarding parliamentary immunity, which grants members of Congress immunity from prosecution while they serve their terms, were proposed too because of rampant corruption in Congress, and they stalled reform to protect themselves.
In June 2019, President Vizcarra presented an ultimatum called “Cuestión de Confianza” to Congress: to either approve the reforms or be shut down. They reluctantly approved them, but not without modifying the reforms to make parliamentary immunity more difficult to bypass. As a response, Vizcarra proposed to move the elections forward from 2021 to 2020, using as a justification the need for balance between the Legislative and Executive powers. As usual, Congress managed to file the proposal and did not pay further attention to it.
Concurrently, there was a controversy regarding the election of the Tribunal Constitucional, or TC, an establishment which, somewhat similarly to the US Supreme Court, determines the constitutional soundedness of government actions. Fuerza Popular was trying to elect its people into the TC to further consolidate its power, and there was overwhelming evidence for this accusation. In response, in September 2019, President Vizcarra issued another Cuestión de Confianza: to stop the election of the TC, or be shut down. However, its discussion and the election of the TC were scheduled for the same day. Congress scheduled the election first. Prime Minister Salvador Del Solar, who was in charge of delivering the CdC, was dramatically denied entrance. It was an incredibly surreal moment; the whole nation watched, awestruck, their elected members of Congress blocking a door as a child would to avoid a lecture.
Eventually, Del Solar was able to enter Congress and present the Cuestión de Confianza. A member of the TC was elected regardless. Because doing so went against the Cuestión de Confianza’s proposals, President Vizcarra announced that he was forced to shut down Congress. Concurrently, Congress complied and officially stopped the election of TC members as a last attempt to save themselves; it didn’t work. Congress later declared President Vizcarra to be unfit for office through a shaky interpretation of the Constitution, and declared Vice President Mercedes Aráoz as “interim president”.
For one day, the Republic of Peru had two presidents. While not an unprecedented incident, the last time this happened was in 1992, a time of even greater political instability. This is not something desirable in 21st century politics.
Aráoz resigned from office the following day, and as the population and the Armed Forces announced their support for Vizcarra, he returned to office. A new cabinet was formed, and the Tribunal Constitucional approved Vizcarra’s actions as constitutionally sound. We all felt relieved and were hoping that this period of instability was over. Even though Vizcarra was not exactly loved, his approval rating was high as he was doing an okay job at governing, and that’s what mattered at that point. He was able to govern without much trouble for the following months, even through the arduous times of the pandemic. That is, until October.
In October 2020, Vizcarra was found to have accepted bribes from construction companies and a vacancy motion was presented. A month later, Vizcarra was removed from office. During a pandemic which had taken tens of thousands of lives and plunged the country into a recession, Congress decided it was a good idea to completely destabilize the government. Is that reasonable? I don’t know, but it sure didn’t seem like it when it happened. President of Congress Manuel Merino took Vizcarra’s place.
The following day, protests began. The majority of the population believed it would have been better for Vizcarra to finish his term and then be prosecuted, instead of throwing him out at a time when political stability was paramount for the country’s survival. Numbers ramped up extremely quickly. On November 12th, tens of thousands took to the streets in one of the biggest civil mobilizations in Peruvian history. The widespread sharing of content through social media allowed us to see the fighting between protesters and an aggressive police. People who couldn’t attend the marches, like myself, contributed by making noise with kitchenware. I personally remember the deafening sound of everyone banging their casseroles to the rhythm of democracy.
On November 14th, the whole country united again to force Merino to resign. Unfortunately, two young men were killed by the police that night. The deaths of Inti and Brian caused several ministers to resign, and finally the resignation of President Merino on November 15. They became the martyrs of the fight for democracy, and even though their voices weren’t heard, the wails and sobs over their corpses were.
Economic growth, political and social progress, and the hope of political stability all receded from view and became a distant dream that might never come. Exchange rates with foreign currencies soared as wealth left the country. It would seem that going through the equivalent of two Watergates and many other shenanigans would be enough to call this a political crisis. Unfortunately, it doesn’t end here.
It was April 2021. Votes for the general elections were being counted, and my family and I anxiously waited for the final verdict. These elections had been surrounded by great controversy and indecisiveness about who the best candidate was, as it usually happens in Peru. Most of the candidates were no more than a joke, and the competent ones had character flaws which made them undesirable in the populist-dominated political landscape of the country.
The results were astonishing. In Peru, the two most voted presidential candidates go on to a secondary election, in which the President is elected. Those two people were Keiko Fujimori and Pedro Castillo.
I wanted to cry at this point. I wanted to cry for my country. But why do I cry? Keiko Fujimori is arguably the most corrupt person in Peru, having accepted millions in illegal funding and having been associated with money laundering. Her party, Fuerza Popular, has countless leaders being investigated for similar crimes. Her father, who I previously mentioned, is not exactly a good person, and she believes his actions were entirely justified. She also holds partial responsibility for the host of previously mentioned issues, as her personal, childish vendetta is somewhat to blame for getting to this point in the first place. Her economic policy is solid, but everywhere she goes, institutional corruption ensues. As renowned economist Daron Acemoğlu mentions in “Why Nations Fail”, the role of healthy institutions is paramount in long term development and growth.
Pedro Castillo is a man with concerning ideals. He proposes to change the Constitution “in favor of the people”, drastically increase corporate income taxes (especially for extractive industries), redistribute property, and prohibit imports of locally produced goods. This scheme has been attempted before in Peru with somber results, and the international experience has been overwhelmingly negative, especially in neighboring Venezuela. Castillo’s party doesn’t seem to be keen on admitting so, as party founder Vladimir Cerrón believes that “their poverty is enviable because they have free access to utilities''. It apparently doesn’t matter that the country is falling apart. All of this is compounded by comments of antidemocratic actions by party leaders.
It’s also worth mentioning both of them have expressed great disdain towards LGBTQ+ people and ideas, abortion, euthanasia, and everything else of the sort.
Keiko is a recurrent candidate and usually has a large number of votes, but why Castillo? As I mentioned earlier, Peru is a country with deep socioeconomic and cultural divisions which go back several centuries. That’s why we had an internal conflict from 1980 to 1992, as the Shining Path believed rural Peru was oppressed by imperialism and the westernized upper class. And now, Castillo asks them, “What has Peru ever done for you? To a large portion of the population, the answer is null. He promises to solve this problem, a very real problem that must be addressed swiftly and that has been neglected for decades, but with improper means. These populations are willing to gamble the country’s future to have the possibility of taking a small step towards a better life. That’s why they voted for Castillo.
That's why I cry. I cry because my country is forced to make an impossible choice, and we will suffer greatly with either one. I cry for the voters who will be crushed by the guilt of voting for the candidate they choose. I cry for the low income citizens of Peru, who will see their condition infinitesimally improve at best, and further poverty at worst.
Even though things are different this time around, we find ourselves in a similar scenario as we were 30-35 years ago; we find ourselves choosing between the macroeconomic instability and scarcity of the late 1980s, and the ruthless authoritarianism of the 1990s. The old voters must remember those times, and the new ones must inform themselves about them in order to make the best choice, whatever it is.
Sources/Further reading (advanced Spanish):
BBC World, Las razones de la crisis política en Perú y cuáles pueden ser las salidas
Comisión de la Verdad y la Reconciliación, Segunda Parte, Capítulo 1
Honorio Martínez, Neoliberalismo y Genocidio en el Régimen Fujimorista
Lerner Febres, Política, Justicia, y Población Indígena en el Perú
RPP Noticias, Pedro Castillo: “desactivaremos el Tribunal Constitucional porque defiende la gran corrupción”
Wikipedia, Protestas en Perú de 2020
Wikipedia, Elecciones Generales de Perú de 2021