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Peru: Castillo is gone, but can Boluarte survive?

Peru is convulsed by mass protests and police brutality

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This article relies for most recent news on the excellent newsletters and website of LAB partner Peru Support Group.


After more than two hundred years as an independent country, Peru finally has its first female president. But the appointment of Dina Boluarte on 7 December has led to widespread protests rather than celebration. The 60 year-old Boluarte served as vice-president under her predecessor Pedro Castillo.

Podcast from The Take (Al Jazeera), 19 December 2022

Castillo had spent much of the previous months defending himself against attempts by the 130 members of Congress to impeach him, all of which failed to obtain the necessary two thirds majority. Local commentators thought a fresh move by opposition groups at the start of December would also prove unsuccessful.

Autogolpe

However on 7 December, Castillo abruptly announced he was shutting down the legislature, would appoint an emergency government and rule by decree. He apparently wanted to go over the heads of Congress and appeal directly to the populace, weary of all the machinations of the parliamentarians, and to win backing from the security forces.
Castillo’s dramatic move was very similar to the ‘autogolpe’ carried out by President Alberto Fujimori in 1992, when he successfully shut down Congress and brought in a new constitution.

However, many of Castillo’s own cabinet denounced his action, and crucially the military high command and the police refused to back him.

In response, Congress immediately voted overwhelmingly to impeach President Castillo on charges of ‘moral incapacity to rule’, and shortly afterwards he was arrested by the police, apparently as he was seeking asylum in the Mexican embassy in Lima. Castillo was taken to the central police station, and is likely to face charges of ‘rebellion’. The public prosecutor is demanding that he be sentenced to 15 years in prison for corruption.

Castillo, a former rural primary school teacher and leader of a teachers’ trade union, had little political experience before he narrowly won the presidency in July 2021.

He had found it increasingly difficult to pass legislation through Congress, which is controlled by a majority of right-wing groups, especially Fuerza Popular, led by Keiko Fujimori, whom he narrowly defeated for the presidency in 2021.

During his 16 months in office Castillo made some 70 changes to his ministerial team, pursued often contradictory policies, and was widely seen by local observers as being out of his depth. He and his closest associates were also accused of corrupt practices, especially in the handling of the Covid epidemic.

With more than 218,000 deaths attributed to the virus, Peru has one of the worst records in Latin America, although the main responsibility for that must rest with Castillo’s three predecessors since 2019, Vizcarra, Merino and Sagasti, and the chaos attending four presidencies in three years.

Can she survive?

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As vice-president Boluarte was constitutionally next in line for the presidency. She had stood as Castillo’s presidential running-mate in July 2021, on the ticket of the left-wing Peru Libre party. However, the Party expelled her in January 2022 and Castillo himself resigned from their ranks in June, fuelling further political uncertainty.

Boluarte was sworn in on the same day Castillo that was impeached, and soon afterwards appointed a cabinet of 17 ministers – nine men and eight women, asking them all to swear an ‘anti-corruption’ vow in addition to their allegiance to the country.

The new president faces many challenges. Her immediate task is to calm the unrest in the country, especially in the south where her predecessor had his political stronghold.
The airports at Andahuaylas and Arequipa were attacked and set on fire by pro-Castillo protesters, and there were large demonstrations in the capital Lima, with at least five deaths reported.

A nationwide state of emergency was declared, but has so far failed to contain the protests. Already 19 deaths have been reported as clashes with the police continued, mostly in the regions of Apurímac, Arequipa, Ayacucho, Junín and La Libertad. The ministers of Education and Justice promptly resigned in protest at the violence, the former stating ‘the death of compatriots has no justification whatsoever; state violence cannot be disproportionate and the perpetrator of death.’

Former President Castillo apparently willing to give up on battle for reinstatement if this will halt the violence. Video: Al Jazeera 19 December 2022

Without a political party to support her in Congress, Boluarte is as vulnerable as the previous president if a majority chooses to oppose her.

She has called for ‘time, valuable time to rescue the country from corruption and misrule,’ called for a ‘political truce’ with Congress, and for national unity in the face of the current crisis.

In response, the most powerful figure in Congress, Keiko Fujimori, tweeted: ‘Let’s hope that the president appoints a broad-based cabinet, a very good cabinet and we must all do everything possible to make it work well.’

This willingness to co-operate is unlikely to last very long. And as the UK based Peru Support Group suggests, if she makes deals with Keiko Fujimori and others ‘Boluarte runs the risk of becoming a prisoner of the right from day one. Her standing in the country may thus prove highly elusive.’

Theoretically, Boluarte could serve the remainder of Castillo’s presidential term until 2026, but on Monday 12 December appeared to be bowing to popular pressure and declared she would seek approval from Congress to bring this forward to April 2024 or even, according to a later statement, to December 2023. Congress has so far blocked this.

Video: DW (Germany) 18 December 2022

Peru’s recent political history suggests she would be very lucky to reach even that earlier date. Over the past six years, six presidents including Pedro Castillo have been ousted before they could complete their term in office, with several lasting no more than a few months.
With the collapse of traditional political parties such as APRA, many of the elected members of Congress tend to gather round a figurehead like Keiko Fujimori, daughter of Alberto Fujimori, deposed in 2000.

They vote for their own personal interests rather than any political programme, and many have been accused of corruption. Paradoxically, local experts argue that it could be their reluctance to face the verdict of Peru’s voters on their performance that might offer the new head of state some breathing space.

It is this overwhelming unpopularity of Congress (repudiated by 87 per cent of Peruvians, according to one recent poll), rather than that of individual leaders, which provokes the protests. Yet the weakness of ‘alternative’ leaders such as Castillo and now Boluarte, promises continuing instability.