After what many describe as a coup attempt and the subsequent removal of a recently elected president, Peru has entered a political crisis.
The impeachment and detention of left-leaning President Pedro Castillo on Dec. 7 after he attempted to dissolve Congress sparked widespread protests, which have left at least 26 people dead as of Dec. 20, according to Peru’s Ministry of Health. Many more have been injured.
The government, under new President Dina Boluarte, who was the former vice president under Castillo, imposed a state of emergency on Dec. 14 that limits some civil liberties for 30 days, including the right to assemble. But on Dec. 20, in a move seen in part as an attempt to appease protesters, the legislature approved a measure to move elections up two years to April 2024.
“For the last six years of constant instability, Peru has kind of muddled through,” says Brian Winter, the vice president of policy for the Americas Society and Council of the Americas, a nonprofit forum focused on the politics, economics and culture of Latin America and the Caribbean. “That’s all in doubt now. This time looks different. It could turn into a real free for all.”
Here’s what you need to know about how the South American country got to this point:
What kind of country is Peru politically?
First, it’s helpful to understand how Peru’s government is structured and how its elections work.
The country’s status as a presidential republic – with independent executive and legislative branches – has been marked recently by frequent clashes between the president and Congress, as noted in an article published by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. This rift was a catalyst for the current crisis.
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The makeup of its electoral process matters, too. Presidents are elected to five-year terms through a two-round contest. The two candidates who receive the highest percentages of votes by plurality move on to a runoff, where the winner of the majority of ballots is elected. Winter, who is also the editor-in-chief of Americas Quarterly, notes the first round is where things get dicey. Because there are so many political factions in Peru, he notes, candidates are able to make it to the runoff with a low percentage of votes.
“This is another big story of Peruvian politics, which is fragmentation,” Winter says. “It’s not a polarized country in the sense of the United States, with two roughly 50-50 factions. It’s atomized.”
Once it gets to that second round, he adds, the contest generally becomes, “which candidate do voters hate more?”
Who are Pedro Castillo and Dina Boluarte?
When viewed through that lens, the now former Peruvian President Pedro Castillo was seen by voters as the lesser of two evils upon his election in 2021. Castillo bested Keiko Fujimori, a right-wing former lawmaker whose father, former President Alberto Fujimori, is currently in prison for crimes against humanity and other charges, according to the Council on Foreign Relations.
But Castillo – a former rural elementary school teacher from the north who had never held office – advanced to the runoff with a plurality of only about 19%. Because of this, he “never had a mandate,” says Cynthia McClintock, a professor of political science and international affairs at George Washington University.
Winter will even go as far as describing Castillo, an outsider who originally appealed to the country’s poor, as “truly inept,” which he says is a word he doesn’t throw around a lot. He notes that the former president would disappear for days at a time early in his tenure in office and faced corruption allegations.
“He was lost from day one, and Peruvians sensed that,” Winter adds.
Dina Boluarte was Castillo’s running mate in 2021 and later became vice president. The lawyer by training was born in a region in Peru’s mountainous south where Castillo saw his strongest support, Reuters has reported. She similarly did not have a lot of political experience, but McClintock doesn’t see Boluarte as a “neophyte” or “unsavvy.”
What events led to Peru’s political crisis?
While the dramatic events in December 2022 were the major dominoes to fall, analysts also note two broader things in Peru’s recent history that had an impact.
First was the commodities boom from the early 2000s until roughly 2013, when high prices for Peru’s metals and minerals exports boosted its economy, according to Winter. The stretch allowed for unusual stability in Peru. But once the “air came out of that bubble,” he says, Peruvian politics “came undone again” and saw factions enter a tug-of-war for resources. Peru has had six presidents in the last six years. In 2020, it cycled through three in a week.
Then, there was the COVID-19 pandemic. Both McClintock and Winter note that Peru was hit particularly hard by the virus’ spread: It has the highest per-capita death rate in the world, according to Johns Hopkins University. As if that fact alone wasn’t difficult enough for Peruvians, the pandemic also impacted the elections of April 2021. McClintock notes that the “candidates could not campaign and the pollsters could not poll,” which might have been a reason why an inexperienced, relatively unknown candidate like Castillo rose to the top.
But it was in early December 2022 when the situation accelerated toward disarray. After surviving two previous impeachment attempts related to corruption investigations, Castillo was finally removed from office by Peru’s Congress on Dec. 7 after he tried to dissolve the legislative body and rule by decree. Castillo was later arrested and replaced by Boluarte, a move that drew criticism from several left-leaning Latin American leaders. Then the protests began.
Why are Peruvians protesting?
The answer to this isn’t straightforward. While many of those protesting are supporters of Castillo, who are angry about his unceremonious removal, Winter adds that more generally, “Peruvian society is just tired of the status quo and constant political turmoil.”
“I think that this has stopped being about Pedro Castillo and has become more about one of the real big divides in Peruvian society, which is rural versus urban and, to some extent, the elite versus the more Indigenous working class,” he says.
This divide is really “centuries old,” according to McClintock, who cites gaps in potable water availability and infant mortality rates between the country’s rural areas and cities such as Lima. Castillo’s campaign emphasized the large difference in living standards between Lima and the countryside, according to Americas Quarterly. Given this and where he hails from, Castillo’s election “brought a lot of that back to the forefront,” McClintock adds.
El País reports that the protests are largely concentrated in the Andean south region.
Of course, no one really knows. Winter says things are “up in the air.” It’s possible that moving the next elections up from 2026 to 2024 – a decision that still needs to be ratified, according to the BBC – could quell the protests.
Regardless, Peru’s future is uncertain. McClintock cautions against hoping simply for stability, which she says could just mean military intervention. Winter, citing recent polling in the country, notes that the move that got Castillo impeached – attempting to dismiss Congress – was actually his most popular one, with more than 40% of those surveyed approving of his attempt.
“If you believe in democracy, I think those are really worrying numbers,” he says. “Because it tells you that many people are not at all worried about democratic rules and norms. They’re worried about their side winning. And it’s breaking down along these deep divisions that have always existed in Peru.”