Peru: A Democracy That Does Not Deliver

Diego A Salazar-Morales 

On July 28 2021, Peru celebrated both its 200th anniversary of independence and elected a rural, indigenous syndicalist, Pedro Castillo, who was unknown to the country’s traditional elites. His election has been contested by Keiko Fujimori, the daughter of Peru’s former autocrat, who along with representatives of Peru’s elite enjoys the support of powerful law firms and launched ‘lawfare’ against Peru’s Electoral Jury to suppress the vote of districts where she lost the ballot, which were mostly inhabited by rural indigenous populations. Fujimori effectively managed to delay the proclamation of Castillo as president until eight days before the constitutional limit. Observers have argued that this has important implications for the country’s governance as it has conditioned the conformation of alliances and sabotaged the formation of government for the subsequent months.

This was the consequence of Peru’s 2021 electoral campaign, which was marked by vitriolic political debates that began a new phase in the long process of political polarization dating back to 2016, when former President Pedro Pablo Kuczynski was forced to resign by a Fujimorista-controlled congress (73 out of 130). Since then, the legislative and the executive branches of government have been in clear confrontation, resulting in the rapid impeachment of presidents (five in recent years) and the dissolution of the Congress. 

This unstable political context has been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic which revealed the weak institutional basis of the country’s “economic success history”. Peru has the highest death toll per million in the world, and one of the worst economic performances of the pandemic. Observers suggest that this is the result of the flawed economic management of technocrat minister Maria Antonieta Alva, who introduced an economic scheme granting loans to major firms, while at the same time permitting them to massively dismiss formal workers. Recent data by IADB shows that this measure erased 60% of total employment in Peru, compared to other countries in Latin America. 

For many, Peru’s prized economic growth of the last decades has not delivered on its promise of building a solid state with sound social security systems. In practice, the conjunction of political polarization and economic crisis amid an electoral context led many Peruvians to question not only the benefits economic model, but also the country’s democracy.

Symptoms of democratic failure

Yet, the pandemic only partially reflected deeper divides in Peru’s democracy which for almost 20 years have been left unattended. This means that the current political instability is hardly the by-product of recent history. Since 2000, Peru has experienced consistent social conflicts linked to the extractive economic activities which have resulted in 300 deaths due to police action in the last 4 years alone. The Ombudsman has repeatedly highlighted that nearly 70% of the country’s social conflicts are related to mining and petroleum extraction activities. Yet addressing this social problem has not been a priority for Peru’s subsequent governments, which have been more preoccupied with managing the country’ macroeconomic environment from the capital Lima than addressing claims from the interior, which is merely seen as a source of resource extraction.

This is the consequence of the failed decentralization process that only granted administrative functions to regions without building regional fiscal capacities. In practice, the country has persisted with the centralized legacy of the Fujimorista era which has been exacerbated by the impossibility for regional political parties and social movements in the country to position their public agendas as governmental priorities. 

While some point to the lack of party structures to channel Peru’s regional discontent, others suggest that there is a de facto capture of key sectors of governmental institutions by advocacy coalitions that actively contest any popular initiative. In practice, since 1992 the country has seen a myriad of technocrats in high ministerial positions, who usually praise the benefits of having a ‘technical government’, when in fact there has not been a serious effort to consolidate a strong, capable, and independent bureaucracy. Observers have thus largely warned that technocratic influence in Peru cemented two types of state institutions. One group sought to preserve the economic environment, maintain monetary stability, attract international investment, typically cope with technocrats, and exhibit a minimal level of bureaucratic strength. This group of institutions are called ‘isles of efficiency’. The second group of institutions are social in nature, particularly in education and health, which have been largely neglected, underfunded, and exhibit low operational capacities. Such a divide has real consequences for the country’s ability to implement social policies and deliver its democratic promises. 

While technocrats have consistently made an effort to achieve positive indicators in international rankings and risk assessments, they have been unable to rebuild infrastructure 

destroyed during the ‘El Nino’ phenomenon (climate pattern that describes the unusual warming of surface waters in the eastern tropical Pacific Ocean) in 2017 including schools, hospitals, and roads, and instead hired the UK government in a multi-billion contract to do so on their behalf.  There are numerous examples similar to this in Peru.

Unlike neighboring countries, for 30 years Peru has not constructed a minimal civil service infrastructure. It was only in 2008 that a marginal agency known as SERVIR was created, but only as part of the negotiations on Peru’s Free Trade Agreement with the US. In practice, access to most governmental positions is still conditioned upon patrimonial appointments, advocacy coalitions, and ‘closed networks’ known as ‘argollas’ that dominate the design and execution of policy in the country. This patrimonial predominance has important impacts on the preservation of administrative and institutional memory in public organizations and ultimately in the delivery of public services, whose quality depends on those in office which observers say tend to change rapidly as patrimonial coalitions vary

One can imagine that continued signs of failure might trigger public debates which ultimately should precipitate the articulation of new political options. However, public debate in Peru is actively suppressed: one family group controls 80% of the media, since this sector is the only one exempt from public procurement regulations except for the military, and hence it is exempt from anti-corruption oversight. Moreover, over the years Peru’s media has played a key role in stigmatizing and labelling social movements and uprisings as ‘terrorist resurgences’, rendering their claims as illegitimate. This was more evident during the last electoral competition, in which an EU observation mission noted that Peru’s media “…conducted an openly biased informative coverage favoring Fujimori and detrimental [to other candidates], contrary to journalist ethic codes, national legislation and international commitment on media.” The EU mission also stressed that media malpractices “sparked reactions” since they were rejected by 84% of citizens, who considered that the information they received was biased. 

Like the media, the political class in Peru has seen a gradual and irreversible deterioration. Parties predominant in the last 20 years, like APRA and the PPC, have disappeared mostly due to corruption allegations, which extends to almost every single political force. Arguably, corruption in the country has reached systemic levels. In recent years every single former Peruvian elected president has been imprisoned, accused of either receiving bribes, promoting lobbies, or laundering money. In a dramatic recent case, former President Alan Garcia (1985-1990/2011-2016) committed suicide right before being imprisoned. In this context, it has proven difficult for political actors to renounce the inherited political legacies of clientelism and patrimonialism to construct a viable political option. Such is the case of the centrist Partido Morado, which enjoyed 29% of vote intention at the start of 2021 election campaign, yet plummeted to 5% in part because its leader promoted his aides and personal invitees over long-term militants during the elections. While initially electors saw in this party an opportunity for moderate politics away from ‘clientelist rings’, Julio Guzman’s leadership proved unfit for the task. 

The business of state reform

There have also been efforts to promote reform in the country’s political system. However they ended up being politicized and implemented on the basis of short-term electoral calculations. One of the clearest examples is the recent High Commission for Electoral Reform created by interim President Martin Vizcarra (2018-2020) in 2018. With the support of ‘experts and some academics’, Vizcarra, as part of his confrontation with the majoritarian ‘Fujimorista’congress, proposed reforms such as eliminating parliamentary immunity (allowing them to conduct fiscal investigations on elected congressmen), restricting parliamentary re-election, and eliminating preferential vote, among others. In just two months, the selected ‘High Commissioners’ backed most of the Vizcarra reforms, suggesting further detailed modifications mostly cemented in secondary, archival, and anecdotical evidence. Not only the executive branch, but also the Congress learned to promote constitutional reforms without major debates nor technical evidence. During 2020, the Congress introduced several populist measures including disintegrating the country’s pension system, appointing a massive number of public servants overnight, reinstalling re-elections for governors and majors, and more recently, promoting constitutional reforms without any public debate which mostly seek to limit governmental executive capacities. 

It is important to mention that the utilization of reforms as a means of sabotaging competitors is not recent. At almost every single election, the country has introduced new electoral norms reducing or increasing the length of the electoral terms (depending on who is in office), incrementally changing the requirements for inscription of electoral parties, implementing reforms concerning funding, and/or promoting strict laws limiting the escalation of regional parties to the national level. There has been a continuous effort to limit the offer of political parties artificially creating a political monopoly, which in most cases restricts electoral options to a handful of parties involved in corruption scandals – a political class already known to the electorate. But perhaps 

one of the most detrimental effects of the multiple reforms introduced is that they incentivize other political actors to build ‘reform brands’ internalizing undemocratic practices whereby taking office means dismantling predecessors’ legacies only to re-build them again under their own party brands. 

Of course, this would not be possible without the support of ‘closed networks’ (‘argollas’) of politicized bureaucrats, technocrats, and experts which different parties manage to congregate when they take office. 

Looking ahead

In the past 20 years the country’s democracy has failed to live up to its promises. Peru’s democracy has not only been unable to create a sound civil service scheme, but has also failed to deliver basic public services to its population. Additionally, Peru’s political actors have learned to manipulate the country’s institutions to be in line with their short-term political calculations, and large sections of the state remain captured by ‘closed networks,’ rendering clientelism the principal form of bureaucratic survival. In this scenario, what lays ahead for Peru’s newly elected president Castillo, and for the country’ political system?

One week after President Castillo was proclaimed president, different members of Congress suggested the possibility of impeaching and removing him. Furthermore, media barons have flexed their muscles, campaigning against the government by suggesting that ”terrorists have taken” Peru’s executive branch and that economic crisis was right around the corner. President Castillo continues with his proposal for a Constituent Assembly which clearly has no majoritarian support. Castillo advocates achieving a new social pact by including largely neglected indigenous populations and other minorities, whose constitutional rights’ recognition have lagged behind in comparison to other countries in Latin America. 

Arguably, the proposal for a new constitution has sent shocks of fear across the traditional political elite, who believe that President Castillo might be trying to remain in power, emulating Bolivarian neighbors. What remains in the public discussion is, nonetheless, a predominant lack of good-faith political dialogue with the opposition, who have resorted to a vitriolic debate involving racial slurs against indigenous peoples recently appointed to government. Whether Peru follows the path of renewing its political class via a new constitutional pact or removes President Castillo before the end of his term remains to be seen. 

While procedural democracy is still in place (the rotation of power and conduction of elections), substantial democracy (an actor’s respect for the democratic conversation, respect for pacts, and good faith politics) is already broken.

As theorists argue, democratic procedures cannot live without the democratic will of political actors and the effective delivery of its social promises, although curiously Peru’s political system has been operating already without substantial democrats and with weak institutions for many years. 

In collaboration with Pedro Perfeito da Silva, Hannah Vos and Oliver Garner

Diego A Salazar-Morales is a Research Associate at the Hertie School of Berlin and Coordinator of the PhD Panel Series of CIVICA-The European University of Social Science. Diego completed his graduate studies at the London School of Economics and King’s College London, and he is currently completing his doctoral studies at the Hertie School of Governance, Berlin. 

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