The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Peru has had five presidents in 25 months. Can Dina Boluarte stick?

On her first full day in office Thursday, Peruvian President Dina Boluarte participates in a procession of the Virgin of the Immaculate Conception in the Plaza de Armas in Lima. (Paolo Aguilar/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock)
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LIMA, Peru — At her abrupt swearing-in ceremony as Peru’s seventh president in as many years, Dina Boluarte called for an end to the relentless political warring that has undermined this nation’s governability for much of the last decade.

Repeated clashes between successive governments and cohorts of lawmakers have allowed a range of grave social problems — widespread hunger, the world’s deadliest per capita covid-19 outbreak, systemic graft at all levels of government — to spin out of control.

The infighting within a political class that’s widely seen as criminally venal has alienated ordinary Peruvians to the point where half no longer “support” democracy — the third lowest level in Latin America, behind only uber-violent Honduras and perennially beleaguered Haiti.

Boluarte succeeds her former leftist ally, Pedro Castillo, who was impeached and arrested Wednesday after he attempted to shut congress down and rule by decree to avoid being ousted on corruption charges.

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Peru’s first female president in 200 years of independence said she would appoint a broad-based “government of national unity.” She sought to distance herself from what she called Castillo’s “shameful acts of larceny” and called for a “political truce.”

“What I am asking for is a period of time, valuable time, to rescue the country from corruption and misgovernment,” she pleaded before a congress that had just fired Castillo on a 101-6 vote.

Yet whether Boluarte, also from Castillo’s Marxist-Leninist Free Peru party, is given that breathing space by a fractious and deeply conservative congress remains far from clear.

It will depend in large part on the dexterity with which she handles the enormous challenge of putting Peru back on the rails, but also on the degree to which lawmakers intend to see out their own five-year terms, which run until July 2026. If Boluarte were forced out, the constitution would require new elections.

Crucially, she was expelled from Free Peru in January after falling out with its polarizing leader, Vladimir Cerrón, and will quickly have to build a legislative alliance to survive. That will likely mean tacking to the center.

The youngest in a family of 14 children from a remote community in the southern mountain region of Apurímac, Boluarte, 60, rose to study law in Lima, and then managed an office of Reniec, Peru’s public registry for births, deaths and marriages. Arguably the most notable episode of her career there was an incident in which she is reported to have verbally abused a trans woman who was attempting to change her official gender.

As vice president, she managed to largely avoid being sucked into Castillo’s endless graft scandal vortex; she increasingly distanced herself from him in recent months. Yet it was her first elected office, and it’s unclear whether she’ll do a better job of fulfilling her enormous new responsibilities than Castillo, a fellow neophyte who’s now in pretrial detention, accused of “sedition” and “rebellion.”

“She should get the benefit of the doubt,” predicted Carlos Anderson, a centrist lawmaker who was at the front of the charge to remove Castillo. “Most members of congress want to hang on to their jobs for the next four years.”

But he also warned that the new president would need to thread the needle of appointing a cabinet that’s friendly to Peru’s business community, which was alienated by Castillo’s far-left posturing, including threats of nationalizing large chunks of the economy, while attending to the needs of the poor Peruvians who, Castillo had claimed he would represent but largely ignored once in office.

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Failing to do so could pave the way for populists far more radical than Castillo. If an election were held now, polls have shown, Antauro Humala, the extremist brother of former center left president Ollanta Humala, would command 12 percent of the vote. Given Peru’s splintered political landscape, with more than a dozen parties, that could propel him into a presidential runoff — Castillo needed less than 19 percent to win the first round of last year’s election; Keiko Fujimori made it to the second round with less than 14 percent.

A former army major, Antauro Humala, 59, was recently released from prison after leading a 2005 military uprising against the elected government of Alejandro Toledo in which two police officers were murdered.

He espouses an ideology known as “etnocacerismo,” which posits the racial superiority of Andeans. Its proponents claim to be left-wing, but many view them as fascist. Humala calls for the summary execution of corrupt officials; he has repeatedly included his brother, who was president from 2011 to 2016, on that list.

Boluarte’s administration “can’t just be a neoliberal government,” Anderson said. “There are many Peruvians in the interior who are rightly asking why 30 years of growth have not benefited them. They are the people who voted for Castillo and are now feeling disoriented. We must avoid them turning to Antauro.”

José Alejandro Godoy, a political scientist at the Pontifical Catholic University of Peru, is less optimistic. Boluarte, he says, has yet to demonstrate the necessary skills to hang on to the presidency, never mind turn her dramatic promotion into a success story.

She faces pressure to achieve rapid results in cleaning up state agencies that collapsed during Castillo’s 17 months in power as he appointed an army of unqualified and ethically challenged candidates to the public bureaucracy.

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Notable challenges including reviving the national passport agency and helping Peru’s desperate smallholder farmers.

Getting a Peruvian passport was once a straightforward process that took just a couple of hours. In the past year, it has become an odyssey that can take months — unless the applicant pays bribes.

The government has repeatedly failed to replace the half-million tons of fertilizer normally imported each year from Ukraine and Russia, triggering an expected drop in harvests and deepening food insecurity.

“A lot will depend on whom she appoints as her prime minister,” Godoy said. “But Boluarte can’t just slip into the background. The job of president requires being out in public all the time, especially outside of Lima, where citizens will expect to see her in person and for her to listen to their needs.”