Peru’s recent history with democracy has been chequered, to say the least. A year and a half ago, when the country elected a new president, I remarked that “In the last term, conflict between president and congress led to chaos, and the chance of something similar happening this time seems unpleasantly high.”
And so it turned out. That president, Pedro Castillo of the far-left Free Peru, started out on a conciliatory note, but soon ran into trouble with the opposition-controlled congress. With moves on foot to impeach him, yesterday (Wednesday in Peru) he announced in a televised address that he was declaring a state of emergency and dissolving congress, promising to replace it with a constituent body to draw up a new constitution.
So far, so distressingly familiar for Latin America. But things then deviated from the script: many of Castillo’s own ministers denounced him, the military declared its loyalty to the constitution, and congress refused to disperse. Instead it quickly put Castillo’s impeachment through all stages, convicting him by an overwhelming vote of 101 to six, and vice-president Dina Boluarte was sworn in to replace him. Castillo was placed under arrest, apparently while attempting to flee to the Mexican embassy to seek asylum.
All being well, Boluarte will serve the remainder of Castillo’s five-year term. Proud of having seen off the immediate threat to the constitutional order, the Peruvian political class sound as if they are on the same page for once; support for Boluarte has come from across the spectrum, including the far right’s Keiko Fujimori, who narrowly lost the 2021 election to Castillo. But there’s no assurance that this will last.
Democracy has to be defended against all comers, and Peru’s institutions deserve credit for having come through on this occasion. It’s worth pointing out, however, that defence of democracy in the region tends to be rather selective: coup attempts from the right are much less likely to meet this sort of institutional resistance.
When Fujimori’s father, Alberto Fujimori, tried the same stunt in 1992 he got away with it, and governed as an autocrat for another eight years. Establishment forces behaved just as badly in several other countries, as with a soft coup against Honduras’s left-wing president in 2009. The left can be forgiven for thinking that enforcement of democratic rules is a bit one-sided. (Fujimori père was eventually prosecuted and jailed; he is still in custody, in the same prison where Castillo is now being held).
But if Boluarte can turn her initial support into a broad-based administration, she might be in a position to tackle Peru’s problems of poverty and corruption, and show that democracy really is worth standing up for.