The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Peru’s democracy proves resilient against a president’s coup

Peruvian President Pedro Castillo addresses the audience during the opening of the VII Ministerial Summit on Government and Digital Transformation of the Americas, in Lima, Peru, on Nov. 10. (Sebastian Castaneda/Reuters)

Inexperienced, possessed of a mishmash of ultraleft ideology and surrounded by a group of corrupt advisers, former rural schoolteacher Pedro Castillo was never a good fit for the office he won 17 months ago: president of Peru. Nor was he terribly popular even then. He lucked into victory by finishing first among 18 candidates, with 19 percent of the vote, in a first-round election and then by defeating the other finalist, a right-wing populist, by 44,000 votes out of nearly 19 million cast. Mr. Castillo made matters worse for himself by presiding over multiple corruption scandals and a revolving door of mostly incompetent cabinet ministers. In constant conflict with an opposition-controlled Congress, Mr. Castillo twice survived impeachment votes and was facing a third one Wednesday when he committed his greatest mistake yet: announcing a plan to dissolve Congress, “reorganize” the judiciary and rule by decree.

Peruvian society’s swift, stunning and peaceful rejection of this power grab sends a hopeful signal about democracy’s future — in the Andean nation of 33 million and more generally. Peru’s armed forces and police unequivocally refused to support Mr. Castillo’s coup attempt, as did key members of his government and the nation’s chief justice. Within hours of Mr. Castillo’s speech, 101 members of the 130-member Congress had voted to remove him from office (14 more than the 87 votes required) and he was under arrest on charges of rebellion. Vice President Dina Boluarte was sworn in as Peru’s first female president.

There will be no repeat of the “self-coup” in Lima 30 years ago, in which the then-president, Alberto Fujimori, dismissed Congress and seized dictatorial powers with military support. Given that history, Wednesday’s events are encouraging as a measure of Peru’s progress. Mr. Fujimori’s coup enjoyed considerable support at the time from a public made desperate by a wave of Maoist terrorism and rampant inflation. “Fujimorism” is still, to be sure, a strong current in Peruvian politics. The ex-president’s daughter was Mr. Castillo’s opponent in the 2021 runoff, and her party leads the congressional opposition. Nevertheless, for all its lingering social and economic inequality, Peru is a far more prosperous and stable country than it was in 1992, and its people seemed to understand they have a lot to lose from an authoritarian debacle.

Mr. Castillo has portrayed himself as a victim of Peru’s traditional economic elite, and there is no doubt much opposition to his rule was based on partisan interests as well as actual evidence of corruption. The fact that Peru has now had six presidents since 2016 speaks volumes about its scandal-ridden governance and fragmented, conflictual party system. After taking the oath of office, Ms. Boluarte struck the right tone by calling for a political “truce”; but the country is not out of the woods yet. It needs structural reforms to right the constitutional balance between the legislative and executive branches and discourage factionalism.

A stable democracy with less corruption is clearly what Peruvians want. And although Mr. Castillo betrayed that cause, the constitutional resiliency Peru demonstrated Wednesday suggests that optimism is still rational.

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