Five things to know about Peru's political instability

Ernesto Tovar, Agence France-Presse

Posted at Dec 09 2022 10:52 AM | Updated as of Dec 09 2022 11:46 AM

Protesters who support the ousted president Pedro Castillo confront the Police on the outskirts of the Prefecture of Lima, where the now former president remains detained, in Lima, Peru, Dec. 7, 2022. A small group of supporters and detractors of ousted Peruvian President Pedro Castillo clashed in front of the center where the former president is being held in Lima, accused of attempting to carry out a self-coup. The Peruvian National Police (PNP) have had to intervene with tear gas and detain some of the protesters in order to clear the central Alfonso Ugarte avenue. Aldair Mejia, EPA-EFE
Protesters who support the ousted president Pedro Castillo confront the Police on the outskirts of the Prefecture of Lima, where the now former president remains detained, in Lima, Peru, Dec. 7, 2022. A small group of supporters and detractors of ousted Peruvian President Pedro Castillo clashed in front of the center where the former president is being held in Lima, accused of attempting to carry out a self-coup. The Peruvian National Police (PNP) have had to intervene with tear gas and detain some of the protesters in order to clear the central Alfonso Ugarte avenue. Aldair Mejia, EPA-EFE

LIMA, Peru — Peru has had 6 presidents in 6 years in a headspinning political environment where governments topple like dominos, many dogged by corruption scandals in a country with a massive gulf between rich and poor.

The latest political crisis unfolded in 3 hours on Wednesday: A failed coup by a sitting president, Pedro Castillo, who was then impeached and arrested on his way to seek asylum in Mexico's embassy, and the installation of a new president.

Here are 5 things to know about Peru's chronic instability:

CORRUPTION 

Central to Peru's instability are the "corruption scandals that have affected the different governments, enveloping the whole political class," said Maria Luisa Puig, Latin America director for the Eurasia Group risk analysis center.

Five recent former Peruvian presidents are the target of legal proceedings for corruption: Alejandro Toledo, Ollanta Humala, Pedro Pablo Kuczynski, Martin Vizcarra and now Castillo. 

A sixth, Alan García, committed suicide in 2019 before being arrested for suspected corruption. 

The prosecutor's office accused Castillo of running a "criminal organization" that handed out public contracts in exchange for money and believes that his wife Lilia Paredes and his sister-in-law Yenifer Paredes are part of the plot.

STRUGGLE BETWEEN GOVERNMENT BRANCHES 

Puig noted that Peru has been gripped by a "permanent political crisis" marked by frequent clashes between the executive and Congess.

Conflict between the branches has been simmering since 2018 when Kuczynski was pushed out of office, resigning before an impeachment bid against him from a Congress dominated by Fujimori allies. 

His replacement, Martin Vizcarra, was impeached in 2020, over corruption allegations.

Castillo was in the crosshairs of the opposition-dominated Congress almost as soon as he took office in July 2021. The legislature failed in its first 2 attempts to impeach him.

Castillo tried to fend off a third attempt by dissolving Congress and saying he would rule by decree until a new one could be formed, but lawmakers revolted and voted to impeach him anyway.

Aside from the corruption charges against him, the opposition said he lacked direction. They also criticized his constant rotation of ministers, with an unprecedented 5 cabinet reshuffles in 16 months.

PERMISSIVE LEGAL FRAMEWORK 

Peru's constitution allows Congress to remove a president with 87 votes out of 130 parliamentarians. They can do so on a vague "moral incapacity" provision that does not require them to show legal wrongdoing.

At the same time, a president can also dissolve Congress if it twice denies a vote of confidence to the cabinet.

"The legal framework allows for an impeachment with a minimum of votes, which also becomes easier" due to the frequent lack of political majority backing a president in the "highly fragmented Congress," said Puig. 

And in a country where citizens suffer "permanent discontent ... presidents quickly suffer from a loss in popularity" and struggle to pass reforms, she added.

Within 100 days of taking power, Castillo's disapproval rate already stood at 57 percent, rising to 70 percent before his impeachment.

In her first message to Congress after being sworn in Wednesday, new President Dina Boluarte highlighted the need for "urgent political reform" in the country.

SOCIAL INEQUALITY 

Castillo came to power unexpectedly. A leftist former rural school teacher who toured the country on horseback during his campaign, he presented himself as a humble man of the people who would stamp out corruption.

He took office after a narrow election win claiming that Peru's traditional economic and political elites despised him for his poor origins.

"It is not possible for a peasant to govern the country," he said in his last speech to Congress.

Jeffrey Radzinsky, director of the political consultancy GFP, said that Castillo's main backing came from one of the poorest regions in the country where 26 percent of the population lives in poverty.

In general, poverty affects 40 percent of Peru's rural population.

Wealth in the country is concentrated in a very small population and the middle class is almost non-existent.

SMALL POLITICAL PARTIES 

An absence of strong political parties is another key factor in Peru's instability.

"The deterioration of the party system has meant that recent elections have been very fragmented, which complicates any majority or loyalty" the parliament might have towards the president, said Puig.

Boluarte, who hopes to serve out Castillo's term until July 2026, "will struggle because she does not have a parliamentary majority. She will have to forge alliances," said Radzinsky.

"With 6 presidents in 6 years," it is "hard to imagine her in the job until 2026," added Puig. 

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