Peru’s broken political system urgently needs a fix


The attempted coup by Peru’s president was as incompetent as his attempts at government.

Within an hour of Pedro Castillo proclaiming the closure of Congress and rule by decree on Wednesday, the rural primary school teacher and his family had fled the presidential palace in Lima.

Nobody, it appeared, backed the bold power grab: neither Castillo’s own cabinet (who swiftly resigned), nor the army nor the police. Within hours, the radical leftwinger was under arrest and vice-president Dina Boluarte — Peru’s sixth president in just over four years — had been sworn in to replace him.

Many Peruvians breathed a sigh of relief after the day’s high drama, praying that the denouement meant a respite, however brief, from the constant political turbulence which has buffeted the Andean copper-producing nation. Shops stayed open and businesses barely missed a beat.

If Castillo had hoped to emulate Alberto Fujimori, the Peruvian president who successfully shut down congress in 1992 and ruled by decree for another eight years, he forgot two vital details. The first was popular support: Fujimori was riding high in the polls when he staged what became known as his “self-coup”. The second was to send in the tanks along with the suspension of the constitution.

Chaos and incompetence plagued the Castillo administration from the outset. Elected last year on a pledge of “no more poor people in a rich country”, prosecutors say Castillo and his family-dominated inner circle swiftly set about delivering on that pledge — for themselves.

The prosecutor’s office accused Castillo in October of running a “criminal organisation” inside the presidency aimed at securing bribes from public contracts. The president’s wife, sister-in-law and two nephews have all been implicated. (They deny the charges.)

Bribery allegations are nothing new in Peruvian politics. Many of the country’s previous leaders and a large proportion of its lawmakers have also been accused of being on the take. Analysts concur that Castillo has only lasted this long because Congress is loathed even more than he is.

Boluarte must now try to cobble together a parliamentary majority to govern until the current presidential term ends in 2026. A lawyer by profession, she remains something of an enigma to many Peruvians, having kept her distance from Castillo and largely avoided public debate.

Congress may go along with her government for now, out of self-preservation. Peru forbids lawmakers from standing again and the legislature’s generous salaries are a powerful disincentive to voting for early redundancy.

“It will be very difficult for Boluarte to build a government majority in Congress and that is the main unknown at this point, how she will be able to stay in power,” said Gonzalo Banda, a political scientist. “For now I think Peru Libre (Castillo’s party) will support her, but when the first frictions emerge, let’s see whether they continue to back her.” 

Even if her administration proves more competent and durable than that of Castillo (a low bar), Boluarte’s arrival will not fix the country’s badly broken political system.

For that, political reform is needed. Peru is saddled with the legacy of Fujimori’s authoritarian constitution: a unicameral legislature and a president empowered to dissolve congress if his nominee as prime minister loses two confidence votes. Equally absurdly, congress has the power to depose the elected president on the grounds of “moral incapacity” — a phrase which could mean just about anything.

“The instability of the political system is established,” notes Alberto Vergara, a political expert. “We will keep having episodes like Wednesday’s for as long as we have a corrupt, dysfunctional and poor system.”

Whether Boluarte has the stomach and the political nous to undertake major political reform is unclear. In the meantime, an authoritarian outsider might try to seize power, though this seems unlikely given the army’s clearly expressed preference for constitutional solutions.

What is becoming increasingly obvious is that Peru’s gravity-defying macroeconomic performance over the past two decades will not last much longer unless the politics can be sorted. Independent central banks and technocratic finance ministries can only do so much.

michael.stott@ft.com



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