Peru and the Thorny Challenge of Getting Political Transitions Right

Failure to push back on anti-democratic currents—as Peruvians well know—can result in only a mirage of the short-term stability that citizens deserve.


Source: Columbia University.

In December 2022, Peru’s president, Pedro Castillo, botched his attempt at orchestrating a self-coup, or autogolpe. His constitutional successor, Dina Boluarte, stated her intention to remain in power through 2026 (rather than resigning and holding new elections), prompting mass protests led by poorer, indigenous, working-class, and rural Peruvians. In response, the police and security sector used lethal force against unarmed protestors, killing almost 50 and injuring almost 1,000 people injured, echoing Peru’s civil conflict of the 1980s and 1990s. Castillo’s swift impeachment by Peru’s congress after his autogolpe attempt may seem like a win for democracy, since one institution (Peru’s legislature) corrected an anti-democratic overreach by another (the executive). However, the messy affair actually reveals the weak foundations of Peruvian democracy, a legacy of an autogolpe by President Alberto Fujimori three decades prior—which began an autocratic period characterized by political murders, human rights abuses of indigenous communities, purges of the judiciary, and rule by decree. Since the post-Fujimori Unity and National Reconciliation Government, none of the nine Peruvian presidents have successfully served out a full term without resigning, being impeached, or being prosecuted for corruption.

The festering political crisis in Peru, along with other such instances of mass mobilization and coups d’état, can be understood as an example of a political transition: a turbulent political process in which new actors and institutions play new and important political roles. These processes are enormously varied and can include the overthrow of a government, the signing of a peace deal, the decision to reform a constitution, and many others. Importantly, transitions represent a break with “politics as usual.” Because of this, they create a high degree of political uncertainty, opening the door for a range of outcomes, some of which might lead to further repression and violence. But they also contain the possibility of creating a more democratic and peaceful post-transition status quo. In cases of political transitions, the international community has an important role to play by offering technical assistance, supporting civil society actors, as well as acting as a broker between parties as they chart a path forward. Further, supporting pro-democracy actors and processes in countries undergoing political transitions is an important part of U.S. strategy, and it aligns with the Biden administration’s focus on democracy as a key foreign policy priority.

To support pro-democracy actors in fragile political environments undergoing a political transition, the U.S. government needs a tailored approach that is responsive to the range of potential outcomes.

  • First, this approach should incorporate nontraditional actors who often possess political legitimacy at the local level. It is often these actors who have routinely been excluded from the political system and whose demands are what set in motion political transition processes in the first place. Marginalized groups, indigenous communities, traditional authorities, and even demobilized armed groups are some examples of actors whose participation is vital in ensuring a political transition yields a democratic outcome.
  • Second, it should retain a focus on political party support. Parties are the engine of democracy. They perform critical roles in candidate selection, policy development, campaigning, and—once in power—the role of governing. In transitional processes, political parties are often weakly institutionalized, fragmented, and unable to perform these functions. Ensuring they are strong enough to do so is a key component of democratic development.
  • Third, it must engage and support oversight and watchdog groups in civil society. These groups are central to generating local demand for better, more responsive governance, tracking the authorities’ promises or commitments during political transitions, and documenting human rights abuses. Because transitions are notoriously messy, watchdog groups provide a layer of political accountability. In cases where civilians are subject to human rights abuses, they can document such events, which can ensure that any perpetrators of human rights abuses face justice in the long run.

In the case of Peru, first and foremost, this approach implies a need to engage with some of the marginalized indigenous communities for whom ex-President Castillo was a symbol of their political hopes. It is important to make a good-faith attempt to engage with these communities who have historically been excluded from fully participating in Peruvian politics. When faced with protests after Castillo’s impeachment and removal, President Boluarte dismissed the protestors as terrorists, using language that the Inter-American Human Rights Commission described as creating an environment of “tolerance towards discrimination, stigmatization, and institutional violence.” However, the protests represent a politics of frustration with the longstanding political crises in the country. Instead of dismissiveness and discrimination, meaningful outreach and dialogue are required to develop a constructive and inclusive political settlement.

Second, it is critical to support political party strengthening. In Peru, parties have become vehicles for personalistic amateur politicians who have no need for a political party apparatus that might hold them accountable: Pedro Pablo Kuczynski, better known as PPK, formed the Peruanos Por el Kambio party (also known as PPK) for his 2016 election campaign. However, parties need support to develop real, programmatic, ideological identities to filter out potential candidates who have anti-democratic or corrupt tendencies and instead select leaders who have the capacity to govern effectively once in power. Strengthening political parties will also serve Peruvian citizens who frequently have to vote for unknown political amateurs without discernible political identities.

Third, it is vital to support civil society and human rights defenders in monitoring security force abuses against civilians, especially protestors and indigenous communities. Recent violence against unarmed civilian protestors is concerning and is part of a trend of increasing politicization of the security sector in the country in recent years. Supporting civil society actors to track, document, and publish examples of security force abuses that fail to comply with international human rights law as well as domestic Peruvian law may have the effect of discouraging heavy-handed tactics of repression by state security actors. Where the deterrent effect is insufficient, it may help create a framework to hold perpetrators of human rights abuses might be held accountable.

There is no bulletproof methodology for choosing the right course of action during a turbulent political transition process. But adopting a framework for how to approach that incorporates scenario planning for different potential outcomes is an important first step. This process can help networks of democratic activists—such as civil society organizations, human rights defenders, and political parties—to develop and take ownership of a collective strategy. Ultimately, this is what increases the likelihood that will be able to generate popular support in favor of pro-democratic transition outcomes, a key determinant of whether or not transitions conclude democratically. When people mobilize in favor of free and fair elections, civilian control of the military, as well as the inclusion of women, young people, and underrepresented minorities and against autocratic power grabs and erosions of democratic norms—transitions are more likely to yield a democratic boon. Failure to push back on anti-democratic currents—as Peruvians well know—can result in only a mirage of the short-term stability that citizens deserve.

Louis Metcalfe is a Conflict Prevention & Stabilization Specialist at the International Republican Institute (IRI). The views expressed in this piece are his own. 

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