Peru is reeling in the midst of a political crisis as its democratic system is rocked by both peaceful and violent demonstrations. These protests shed light on the political polarization and social rifts within Peruvian society.
Some observers contend that Peru’s political crisis started with the fall of former President Pedro Castillo and the rise of the country’s Congress. However, current political crises are also rooted in Peru’s lingering colonial legacy, which produced a democratic system with autocratic and plutocratic features. This system of governance continues to create insurmountable tensions between state institutions and the Peruvian people.
Causes of the Crisis
1. A fragile democracy: Since gaining its independence, Peru has experienced both civil and military rule imposed by authoritarian and dictatorial regimes. Even when popular will was expressed through democratic elections, few democratically-elected presidents were able to fulfill their mandate. Furthermore, Peru’s leaders have sometimes taken on a messianic mantle, imposing order through a single charismatic leader and suggesting that unilateral political action by a savior figure was in the public interest.
These trends intensified in the 1990s when Alberto Fujimori came to power. The former president transformed authoritarian mechanisms into "democratic" institutions. The Fujimorist legacy reinforced the dirty politics of the previous era. As a result, Peruvian democracy today suffers from deteriorating relations between state institutions and the people, major tensions between the executive and legislative branches, feeble political representation, and limited access to fundamental rights.
2. Dysfunctional political parties: Political parties serve as the intermediaries between the state and society. In Peru, these organizations have structured themselves around the concept of a political party—that is, a group that organizes itself to gain political power and legal control of the state. However, these parties also maintain clientelist structures of power and patronage that foster hierarchical dynamics with society. These patriarchal systems of caudillismo or coronelismo enable parties to function as nothing more than tools of personal gain and to ignore the populations they claim to represent.
This state of affairs is reflected in Peru’s unstable political institutions, the lack of a concrete government program, and the ruling party’s lack of discipline. For example, data from the Peruvian Congress indicate that over the last 18 months, 27% of congressmen changed parties, while internal debates primarily centered around impeachment of the president.
3. Limited communication channels: There is a clear lack of communication channels that would allow for direct democratic dialogue between the state and the people. The government’s authoritarian crackdown has claimed the lives of dozens of protestors. The state has also criminalized the riots and labeled demonstrators terrorists.
Furthermore, the demonstrators’ limited knowledge of the laws governing political relations has led to advocating for non-viable solutions such as the "que se vayan todos" movement, a new constitution, or the president’s resignation. These demands do not take into account that without other political and cultural shifts, such a road would lead to more entrenched authoritarianism, or worse, anarchy.
The riots in Peru can be understood as a consequence of the structural defects in the country’s political system. These problems have been exacerbated by state institutions’ lack of credibility, limited political representation, and loss of popular interest in formal politics.
1. Lack of credibility: Citizens view state institutions as incapable of resolving their basic demands. This is due to the Peruvian government’s shortcomings in managing public services and guaranteeing fundamental rights, given high levels of corruption, socio-political injustice, and bureaucratic inefficiency.
When a state is weak or even nonexistent, its citizens not only express dissatisfaction with their government, but also are unlikely to recognize its authority, which can undermine the state’s legitimacy and credibility. Ipsos data from 2022 indicate that, as of last year, only 7% of Peruvians had confidence in state institutions, which could explain why 71% of the population wanted to disband Congress.
2. Political parties do not represent the people: This issue is also tied to popular distrust of the country’s political representatives. Political parties are seen as instruments that allow politicians to defend their personal interests and the interests of the business elite who sponsor their campaigns. These representatives lack a political agenda that would address educational, social justice, health, economic, poverty, or security challenges. According to 2022 data from the AmericasBarometer, as of May of last year only 8% of Peruvians believed that political parties were doing their job, and 6 of every 10 Peruvians felt that most politicians were corrupt.
3. Few politically active citizens: The 2022 data from the AmericasBarometer indicated that 53% of the Peruvian population had little interest in politics. This is a symptom of the government’s failure to actively involve citizens in public affairs. Improved political awareness would help people understand how and why actions are being taken and educate the public about the problematic outcomes of conflicts between the state and the people. There are various groups willing to engage in direct dialogue with the Peruvian government or to pursue regular confrontation in order to make their demands heard. However, such political participation is driven by public frustration with the current order, which makes these riots more anarchic than democratic in character.
In conclusion, the riots that erupted in Peru in December 2022 do not have a clear end date. The failure to resolve Peru’s political crisis through democratic mechanisms could further undermine political and public life. The conflict could take new and unthinkable turns by strengthening radical anti-establishment sentiment and exacerbating social injustices. This would make necessary structural changes harder to achieve, and potentially lead Peru towards political isolation on the international stage.