The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Peru could spin out of control, unless its leaders act

Andean demonstrators block a highway during a protest against President Dina Boluarte's government and Congress, in Cusco, Peru, on, Jan. 5. (Pedro Anza/AP)
3 min

On Dec. 7, Peru’s democracy passed a test. Its legislature, judiciary and military all rejected leftist President Pedro Castillo’s attempt to seize dictatorial powers; Congress immediately impeached Mr. Castillo and removed him from office. He now faces criminal charges. In the weeks since, however, a new and more difficult challenge has arisen: nationwide protests — some of them violent — organized partly by Mr. Castillo’s supporters but also expressing long-simmering social and economic dissatisfaction, especially among Indigenous peoples in highland regions. Crowds have blocked roads, attacked mines and forced the shutdown of the economically crucial tourist site at Machu Picchu.

Peru’s ill-prepared police have unfortunately responded with excessive force, sometimes deadly. Fifty-eight people have died, according to Peru’s national ombudsman: 47 in clashes with police and 10 because protesters blocked their access to medical care; meanwhile, a mob burned one police officer to death. The loss of life, though lamented by President Dina Boluarte, the former vice president who succeeded Mr. Castillo, damaged her political standing before she really had a chance to establish it.

Ms. Boluarte and a fragmented Congress have struggled to agree on a coherent political response. They need to find one, lest Peru’s crisis spin out of control.

To assign Peru’s incumbent executive and legislative branches primary responsibility for fixing the problem is not to absolve Mr. Castillo of creating it. That point seems to escape left-wing governments such as those in Mexico, Colombia, Argentina and Bolivia, which have inflamed the situation by voicing sympathy for Mr. Castillo and criticizing the successor government. Fortunately, the Biden administration adopted a supportive posture toward Ms. Boluarte; equally appropriately, it has called on her to hold accountable those responsible for police excesses.

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Nevertheless, she and Congress have no choice but to accept political reality, which is that they, and the system they head, lack public support. Eighty percent of Peruvians surveyed in December expressed dissatisfaction with the way democracy works in their country.

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The best cure for what ails Peruvian democracy is more democracy: Presidential and congressional elections, scheduled for 2026, should be moved up significantly to give Peru a fresh political start. To be sure, this would meet one of the protesters’ demands, thus appearing to reward a quasi-insurrection. Yet in contrast to their call for an immediate constitutional rewrite, it is a plausible demand, given the current president’s lack of a clear mandate and the dysfunctional partisan splits in Congress. Channeling discontent into electoral campaigning, at the end of which the people’s new choices could take office, could help stabilize the situation. At that point, Peru could undertake constitutional reforms aimed at preventing a repeat of this crisis.

The trick is to get from here to there within the existing constitutional framework, via appropriate legislation. Ms. Boluarte has floated various proposals for new elections in the fourth quarter of this year; her latest would have a new government installed for 4½ years starting in December. So far, Peru’s Congress has failed to act. These politicians seem to think they have more time to address their country’s crisis than might actually be the case.

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