Peru is a Warning
Democracy doesn’t work without strong political parties.
There’s usually quite a bit of competition for the title of “Sick Man of South America,” but over the last few years Peru has made quite a run for it. Cycling through presidents at an astonishing clip and through prime ministers even faster, the country has been racked by protests for years now, with an inchoate fury against the political class gripping much of the countryside in a nasty, racialized split with the traditional political class in Lima.
The proximate cause of the latest wave is the impeachment and arrest, on December 7th last year, of then-President Pedro Castillo. A small-town teacher and political neophyte, Castillo was elected in 2021 as the head of a party describing itself as Marxist-Leninist. In office, his Marxism was more of the Groucho kind: a never-ending series of gaffes, blunders and U-turns by a leader plainly baffled by the exigencies of high office. Seen as hopelessly inept even by many of his supporters, Castillo’s presidency was a calamity from the start to its dramatic finish.
Plainly at a loss for how to cajole or co-opt Peru’s extravagantly fractured and almost comically corrupt congress, Castillo decided it would be easier to just shut congress down by force. It was intended as a kind of “self-coup”—a term Peru helped popularize back in 1992. Instead, it was just another blunder: the day of Castillo’s power grab congress convened and impeached him. And that’s when all hell broke loose.
Castillo was replaced in office by his much more moderate vice-president, Dina Boluarte, whom he had picked as a running mate to balance the ticket. Seen as a creature of Lima’s hated political class, Boluarte’s presidency set off the latest and most volatile round of protests, with people coming out onto the streets all around the country to block roads and take over airports in disgust, stranding foreign tourists in the process.
The protests don’t have a clear leader, a clear agenda or clear goals beyond a vague wish for early elections and constitutional reforms. Behind the slogans is a deep revulsion that Peru’s political class had the gall to get rid of the man of the people, Castillo. The feeling harkens back to the old graffiti from Allende-era Chile: “this government may be shit, but it’s ours.”
What Peruvians want is a government that responds to their needs and that feels like it’s theirs. Peru’s political system is unable to provide one. Why?
Journalists’ first instinct is to blame poverty and inequality, but that explanation won’t fly: Peru isn’t especially unequal by Latin American standards, and its economy has performed well in recent years. According to the World Bank, the poverty rate fell by more than half between 2007 and 2019. Growth has been strong since the 1990s, with per-capita GDP tripling this century. Peru is not the poor country it used to be: today it’s a solidly middle-income country ahead of Brazil, Mexico and Colombia, according to the UN’s Human Development Index.
What’s making Peruvians angry isn’t economics, it’s politics. And when you look at Peru’s politics, the thing that jumps out at you is the collapse of its political party system.
For much of the 20th century, Peru had strong and institutionalized parties. They were led by APRA, the big-tent center-left party that dominated the country’s politics, but other left-wing and conservative parties had real purchase in the country’s society, with a nationwide presence, stable career paths that aspiring leaders could follow and the ability to understand, process and package the aspirations of large groups of people.
That system collapsed in the 1990s. What followed was an incredibly disorganized and confusing constellation of self-described parties that aren’t really parties, but rather personal vehicles for charismatic leaders. The current congress has a head-spinning 13 recognized party caucuses, including one for congressmembers who don’t belong to any party. Few of these rump parties have a stable or coherent ideological profile that goes beyond its leader’s personal agenda. As mechanisms for organizing citizens’ participation in politics they just don’t work at all. As a constructive part of a functioning parliament... well, the less said the better.
Peruvians hate their congress with singular intensity. A July 2022 survey had just 10% of them approving of the job it’s doing. The overwhelming perception is that it’s a constellation of cliques all out to loot the state through corrupt self-dealing. It’s not clear to me that that’s wrong.
What makes this all the more explosive is that Peru’s constitution gives that same loathed congress wide leeway to impeach a sitting president with a two-thirds majority. And the need to get rid of a president seems to be the one thing two-thirds of Peru’s parliamentarians can agree on relatively often. Two presidents have been impeached in the last three years, with another leaving office to avoid the threat of impeachment in 2018. Peru’s broken party system has gotten really good at getting rid of its presidents, but it seems at a loss for how to replace them with figures able to garner wide popular support.
What Peru needs is fewer, stronger, more stable political parties. Ballot access rules ought to be changed to force small, marginal parties to merge into larger, more inclusive ones. Caucus rules in congress need to be tightened to force bigger groupings to coalesce around more stable leaders. The political system needs to be rejigged to cut off the constant supply of aspiring strong-man (or strong-woman) leaders. Only it can’t be, because it is precisely those aspiring autocrats who control the institutions that would need to accomplish those reforms.
The result has been permanent instability, with Peruvians falling in and out of love with a succession of charismatic figures who just can’t get along well enough with congress to govern. This permanent impasse seems to be corroding the state’s ability to project its power outside the capital at all, with more and more of the highland south of the country in various stages of rebellion against the political class in Lima.
Structurally, Peru embodies, to an extreme degree, a brand of political malfunction that is gripping countries all around Latin America and spreading across the West: the weakening of political parties, and the rise of a fragmented political scene that just won’t yield a stable governing coalition.
Decisions on who gets nominated, which laws get considered by legislatures and how people get elected have shifted out of the hands of party officials and either down to the voters or up to top national leaders. Nominating decisions in the United States used to be made by party leaders exercising their judgment, not by the current system of primaries. The main political parties in Britain have enacted reforms ensuring their leaders are elected by the party membership rather than chosen by members of parliament. In Latin America, new liberal ballot access laws made it easy for ambitious politicos to bolt from old established parties and set up their own—leading to wild fragmentation. Little by little, party organizations lost prominence as places for making the most important decisions.
These reforms were meant to democratize politics, but as Frances Rosenbluth and Ian Shapiro argued in their 2018 book Responsible Parties, they’ve been accompanied by “dramatic increases in voter alienation from politics.” Today, all the destabilizing consequences of weakening political parties are on prominent display in Peru: a country pinballing from one extremist, unqualified populist upstart to the next, where the very viability of democracy is now under threat.
Reforms that claw back power from the electorate and put it in the hands of professional politicians are always a hard sell. They seem to clash with the spirit of the times. But the stakes are too high to let the optics of the situation prevail. Party leaders around the world should heed the warning of Peru: the only thing worse than having strong parties that hold sway over your politics is not having strong parties that hold sway over your politics.
Francisco Toro, a journalist and the Content Director for the Group of Fifty, is a contributing editor at Persuasion.
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