Beset by chronically inadequate political representation and weak state capacity, Peruvian politics have long been buffeted by an evolving set of political divides. In recent years, the formal political sector has been riven by conflict between reformist and antireformist forces, producing political instability and profound citizen anger. The coronavirus pandemic hit Peruvian social and economic life hard, intensifying this recently emergent political cleavage. Significant risks lie ahead, including heightened political fragmentation and conflict, deeper clashes between police and protesters, and the potential rise of new, illiberal, and populist alternatives. Finding ways to diminish the representation gap and reengage citizens, especially youth, in organized politics is crucial.
Peru’s dominant political challenge of the last two decades has been the continuous, unresolved quest by a diverse, unequal, and fragmented society for adequate political representation—institutional channels that can effectively transmit their demands to the state and a state institutional capacity capable of responding to their needs. Lacking both a state apparatus capable of effectively governing and well-organized, stable political parties that can aggregate diverse and dispersed societal demands, Peruvian democracy flails, beset with constant political crises and increasingly disappointed and alienated citizens.
Since the collapse of Peru’s party system in the 1990s under the weight of civil conflict and rising illiberal forces, Peruvian politics have been in near-constant flux, marked by constant and profound divisions and clashes. The absence of stable, well-established political groupings and institutions that can organize and encapsulate these divisions has meant there has not been one overriding, crystallized political divide. Instead, Peru has witnessed a shifting landscape of divisive actors and clashes.
Underlying the turbulent dynamics of Peru’s formal political life are two latent fissures that rise to the surface periodically, injecting pressures and tensions into the system. The first of these is a profound socioeconomic division—between those who are integrated into the market economy, which privileges mining and hydrocarbon investment, and those left behind or even damaged by it, including Indigenous groups. The second is a territorial divide—between a powerful and often dismissive Lima-based center and the neglected provinces. These two divides sometimes overlap, aligning Peruvians who are integrated economically and closer to the center of power against those left behind economically and in the provinces.
These primary divides made themselves felt during the 2006 presidential contest—in which a radical candidate of the left, army officer and later president Ollanta Humala, lost the presidency to Alan García from the traditional Alianza Popular Revolucionaria Americana (APRA, or American Popular Revolutionary Alliance), who, though elected on a center-left electoral platform, shifted to the right once in power. But the benefits of Peru’s subsequent economic boom and optimistic political narrative about economic progress obscured these two major rifts. Instead, a political identity division less aligned with traditional left-right groups came to dominate Peruvian political life for a time: the clash between fujimoristas and antifujimoristas.
The fujimoristas were followers of Peru’s strongman president Alberto Fujimori who led the country in the 1990s. Gradually recovering after Fujimori’s downfall and departure from the country in 2000, but holding to very conservative and often illiberal values, the fujimoristas regrouped in 2006 within the Fuerza Popular (FP, or Popular Force) party under the leadership of Keiko Fujimori, Alberto’s daughter. Keiko Fujimori came close to winning the presidency in both 2011 and 2016, but she was narrowly defeated as a result of strategic coordination among antifujimorista actors.
This divide has morphed in complex ways since 2016 into a different clash—between, on the one hand, presidents and their teams trying to advance different sorts of reform agendas, such as educational, anticorruption, and political reforms, and, on the other hand, legislators opposing those reforms. This conflict began during the last years of Humala’s government after his Partido Nacionalista Peruano (PNP, or Peruvian Nationalist Party) disbanded in Congress, opening space for the emergence of an obstructionist APRA-Fujimorista opposition coalition. It worsened after the 2016 elections when Keiko Fujimori lost to Pedro Pablo Kuczynski of the party Peruanos Por el Kambio (PPK, or Peruvians for Change). But her party, the FP, won a super majority in Congress. Refusing to admit its electoral defeat, the fujimorista-dominated Congress stepped up confrontation with the antifujimorista executive. Corruption accusations—linked to the international corruption investigation about bribes paid by major Brazilian companies to officials in multiple Latin American countries—embroiled almost all major Peruvian political actors, including both Keiko Fujimori and Kuczynski. The executive-legislative confrontation intensified until Kuczynski resigned in 2018 to avoid being dismissed by Congress.
Far from easing up, the executive-legislative conflict escalated further after Kuczynski’s vice president, Martín Vizcarra, assumed the presidency upon Kuczynski’s departure. Vizcarra managed to connect with the citizenry and its hunger for governance reforms and to define the executive-legislative conflict as an anticorruption and reformist crusade against a corrupt Congress and political class. The first phase of this struggle between Vizcarra and the legislature ended with Vizcarra dismissing the legislature in 2019.
Enter the Pandemic
COVID-19 hit Peru hard. At times during 2020, the country had the highest mortality rate from the disease in the world. The pandemic has inflicted economic devastation and enormous political upheaval as well. Debates over the government’s problematic handling of the pandemic and its economic impact sharpened the political struggle between a popular president and the newly elected but increasingly unpopular Congress.
The election of a new Congress in January 2020, under the new principle of single terms only for Congress members, resulted in a fragmented body in which the president has no members representing him (having not presented a list of congressional candidates for the election) and the FP’s representation has diminished from seventy-two legislators in 2016 to only fifteen (out of 130). Moreover, this post-fujimorista Congress is not only fragmented but also populated by second-tier politicians—because the more experienced ones did not run in the January 2020 elections so that they could run in the 2021 legislative election—who seem prone to the influence of particular interest groups and are interested in rolling back reforms.
Pandemic-related restrictions on public events and travel widened the political gulf between legislators and citizens. New corruption allegations, this time against Vizcarra, fueled yet another interbranch conflict. The gulf between the legislature and the citizenry became particularly evident when, on November 9, 2020, legislators struck against Vizcarra, despite majority public opinion disfavoring such a move. They ousted him from power, using the dubious and disputed legal maneuver of claiming “permanent moral incapacity,” and formed a new government led by the Congress’s president, Manuel Merino. Citizen indignation flared, leading to mass protests in multiple parts of the country under slogans such as “Merino usurper,” and “this Congress does not represent me.” Rocked by the protests, the illegitimate government resigned within a week, and Congress elected a caretaker government that will rule until national elections are held in April 2021.
The extensive involvement in the protests by young people of the so-called generación del bicentenario (bicentennial generation) expanded and recast the earlier divide between fujimoristas and antifujimoristas into a broader divide between political stasis, as represented by many congresspersons, and a wider, more ambitious reform agenda. Whether this divide will be politically channeled and represented in the next electoral process remains to be seen. Also, the electoral weakening of the FP, which had been trying to represent the conservative sector that is active in various sociocultural policy fights, opens the question of whether a divide between conservative groups and defenders of a more progressive agenda (that includes, for example, supporting LGBTQ rights and gender equality) will endure beyond the slow demise of fujimorismo.
In addition to sharpening these conflictive political dynamics, the pandemic has shone a harsh new light on underlying structural problems that Peru’s recent economic growth obscured rather than solved, including income and wealth inequality, the vast scope of the informal economy, and acute problems of state capacity. The coronavirus pandemic hit less advantaged Peruvians hard, and the sharp economic recession produced by the strict quarantine and problematic policies devised to contain the virus has pushed countless households back into poverty or severe economic stress. By deepening and highlighting existing socioeconomic gaps and inequities, the pandemic has set the grounds for the re-politicization of the deep socioeconomic divide. The sharp protests in November 2020 over labor conditions and low salaries in the agricultural sector illustrate this potential effect. It is not clear yet, however, that there will be a political actor capable of successfully articulating, organizing, and representing these festering political grievances.
More Trouble Ahead
Given the mounting pressures and political turbulence of 2020, what are the prospects and risks for Peruvian democracy? One major risk is the continuation or even intensification of political instability, due to the likelihood of continued electoral fragmentation and the serious constitutional ambiguity around legally vacating a president’s seat due to permanent moral incapacity, an uncertainty that has not been settled by the Constitutional Court.
Second, although the military refused to get involved during the recent political crisis, making clear its commitment to democracy, this crisis and the pandemic have revealed a serious problem with an authoritarian-oriented and corrupt police force. The police establishment backed the conservative-right coalition, which attempted to seize power through dubious means. Moreover, through their brutality, the police have distanced themselves from the citizenry even more than before. This increasing popular illegitimacy of the police—and their open resistance to reform—spells trouble for democratic governance in a context in which civil unrest and protest will likely continue.
Third, the emergence of a reformist, pro-institutional agenda aimed at defending democracy is good news for Peru. However, with only an incipient social organization and little political representation or organization behind it, this agenda will likely struggle to contain nondemocratic tendencies and interest groups. Those who support it may be able to shield Peruvian democracy from an openly authoritarian threat, such as a coup, but it is not clear if they could hold off a more populist leadership aligned with popular demands that is willing to erode democratic balance from within, such as by closing Congress and interfering with the judiciary.
In this troubling and uncertain context, what can be done to diminish the risks for democracy? A key priority is fostering pro-democratic oversight of political processes by civic groups, the media, and the public generally. This is crucial considering that it was pro-democratic social protest that stopped Congress’s recent authoritarian drive. In particular, civil society organizations that aim to defend and foster democracy should seize the opportunity and channel new youth participation toward a pro-institutional and democratic agenda. They should work to bolster their organizational capacity to aggregate citizen demands and coordinate diverse citizen agendas. Furthermore, civil society should work more intensively through social media as an alternative and complementary means to traditional face-to-face organization and mobilization, as it proved to be a successful tool in coordinating dispersed initiatives and generating a unified message for the recent protests.
But civil society oversight and protest are not enough. Peru’s privately owned media outlets should step up too. Ever since the 2000 democratic transition, major private media companies have assumed that citizens only want to distract themselves and have abjured from their duty of providing high-quality political information and promoting a deliberative public. Television and radio broadcasters could prove critical in creating open spaces for deliberation and thus help to foster politically informed debates among the wider public.
A second huge challenge is finding ways to diminish the representation gap between citizens and elected authorities by channeling this renewed youth interest in politics, as evidenced by the protests, toward more organized political participation. This could either oxygenate existing political organizations or build new ones. Disrupting the vicious circle of societal depoliticization and antipolitical outlooks among citizens is key for strengthening democracy.
A third priority is pushing forward the pending political reform agenda during the upcoming electoral process, particularly regarding the regulation of executive-legislative relations. And, finally, under the vast agenda of state strengthening, it will be difficult but crucial to take advantage of the citizen pro-reform momentum and advance civilian-led police reforms. The big question here, as in many of the other areas, is who will be willing and politically able to do so.
Paula Muñoz is Professor of Social and Political Sciences at the Universidad del Pacífico (Peru) and author of Buying Audiences: Clientelism and Electoral Campaigns When Parties Are Weak (Cambridge University Press, 2019).