When Pedro Castillo, the dark horse candidate representing the self-described Marxist-Leninist Free Peru party, was elected president last June, many Peruvians warned that he would turn the country into another Venezuela. His party manifesto was replete with attacks on the media and calls for nationalizing the mining and energy sectors, while his mentor Vladimir Cerrón, the domineering founder and leader of Free Peru, had been barred from running due to a corruption conviction following his scandal-wracked time as a regional governor. The specter of economic collapse, one-party kleptocracy, and ruthless repression of criticism seemed almost tangible.
But that thesis was always fundamentally flawed. Even before he was sworn in last July, Castillo—who had no prior experience of elected office—was a weak and isolated leader. He faced a hostile Congress and media as well as a deeply skeptical electorate that had voted for him as the lesser of two evils. Since then, he has proved incapable of handling even mundane government tasks, never mind passing the grand reforms he had promised, while his administration has been ravaged by incompetence, corruption, and infighting. According to a recent poll, 70 percent of Peruvians disapprove of his performance, and many of Castillo’s supporters have now turned on him.
Meanwhile, Congress’s conservative majority has run roughshod over democratic norms and institutions, seeking to modify the constitution by stealth to concentrate power in legislators’ hands, threatening electoral authorities for doing their jobs, retroactively reducing fines for lawmakers’ campaign funding violations, and shielding a former chief prosecutor and comptroller general from prosecution for what appear to be clear cases of corruption.
A different president might have stood up to Congress. Yet Castillo, whose only media appearance over the last three months was a widely panned interview with the public relations head of Peru’s state-run TV channel, has been notable only by his absence in the face of lawmakers’ actions. Instead of an authoritarian power grab, as many had feared, it is Castillo’s inability to lead that appears to be having a lasting impact. The result is that Peru’s democracy, so embattled since the 2016 election, is closer than ever to its breaking point.
Castillo is already on his fourth cabinet in less than a year, and public agencies have seen a mass exodus of experienced mid-level and senior officials who have either been replaced by Free Peru allies or quit in disgust. This is a loss that undermines the state’s administrative capacities across the board, in everything from environmental oversight to infrastructure contracting to safeguarding Peru’s archeological heritage to diplomacy.
At the same time, Castillo has appointed unqualified Free Peru members to public office. His ministers have routinely been the subject of ongoing or unresolved criminal investigations, above all for graft but running the gamut from murder to domestic violence and, including the president, allegedly forged master’s theses. Things are only likely to get worse: Peru’s chief prosecutor launched a criminal investigation into Castillo in May for his apparent role in the irregular awarding of public contracts worth roughly $215 million.
The administration has also failed to take concrete steps to address the surging price of fertilizer, which has reportedly led to many smallholder farmers and campesinos (those of mixed or Indigenous ancestry who work the land) being potentially unable to grow cash crops this season. Peru is now also on its fourth agricultural minister this year, with the previous two ministers having been forced out for their alleged links to serious crime—in one case, two separate homicides—and for their lack of experience in the agricultural sector. Last month, Castillo—who, as Peru’s first campesino president, bases his entire political identity on his affinity with the poor—dismissed the warnings of possible famine by insisting that only the “lazy” would suffer.
Arguably, the only thing the administration has done well was continue the successful COVID-19 vaccination program it inherited from the previous government. But after six months, Castillo without explanation fired his health minister, Hernando Cevallos, the most popular member of his cabinet, and replaced him with another doctor, Hernán Condori—a Free Peru ally who, it emerged, had previously peddled a costly fake anti-aging cure. At his inauguration, Condori claimed falsely that the product had been approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. His two-month spell in office ended in his impeachment in March but not before the country’s vaccination rate fell by half.
But the assault on Peru’s stability has come not just from the power vacuum in the presidential palace. In fact, there are three things the executive and legislature do see eye to eye on: their social conservatism, a shared affinity for graft, and their distaste for democratic accountability. That has allowed a Congress dominated by populist right-wing parties that has twice sought—and failed—to impeach Castillo on constitutionally dubious grounds to pass a series of counterreforms, some in alliance with the government, that have reversed many of the gains made by Peru’s fragile institutions since the return of democracy in 2000.
The counterreforms have included legalizing Peru’s deadly and unregulated system of “collective” taxis, effectively allowing anyone with a vehicle to pick up rides. That move was pushed by Castillo’s then-transport minister, Juan Silva, who is now on the run as prosecutors investigate his alleged role in a kickbacks scandal over public infrastructure contracts. Congress has also ended gender awareness education in schools—in a society with extreme levels of domestic violence. And lawmakers have effectively dismantled Peru’s private pension system, allowing members to withdraw thousands of dollars from their pension pots, supposedly to meet urgent economic needs due to the pandemic, even though Peru is currently between COVID-19 waves. The system was in need of reform, but the move could leave 80 percent of the 6.5 million affiliates with no pension, undoing nearly three decades of painstaking progress since it was first introduced.
But Congress’s most devastating counterreforms have been to Peru’s political institutions and the electoral system itself. Legislators have repeatedly sought to preserve the current closed party system, which political scientists, civil society, and the media have widely criticized for perpetuating a venal and unrepresentative political class, where neither the right nor left has been able to offer meaningful responses to citizens’ basic demands on a broad range of pressing issues, including corruption, violent crime, and wages.
This system intentionally deters the development of new parties by requiring them, among other stipulations, to have nearly 25,000 members before participating in national elections. Existing party registrations are controlled by a handful of businessmen, many of whom use the parties they run to fend off regulation of the lucrative but low-quality private universities they own.
First, lawmakers from both the opposition and Free Peru temporarily suspended reforms passed during Martín Vizcarra’s presidency from 2018 to 2020 that required internal primaries, instead of party bosses choosing candidates in an opaque system. Then, in May, Congress passed a law to unpick the reform altogether, putting through a bill to reopen the selection of candidates by nomination—rather than one member, one vote—for November’s regional and municipal elections, even though the process was well underway.
When the electoral authorities refused to follow the law, arguing that it was both unconstitutional and impossible to implement, lawmakers responded by threatening them with a constitutional prosecution, which could land them in jail.
Then, upping the pressure on Peru’s two main electoral bodies—the National Office of Electoral Processes and the National Tribunal of Elections—Congress demanded they produce evidence of fraud in Castillo’s electoral triumph last year, despite the vote being given a clean bill of health by the Organization of American States, European Union, and U.S. State Department. Congress is now even more loathed than the president, with its disapproval rating recently hitting 86 percent.
Meanwhile, both Castillo and Congress have repeatedly attacked the free press. The president has threatened to sue journalists reporting on his alleged graft and promised to withdraw state advertising from media outlets that report on public discontent with his presidency. His prime minister, Aníbal Torres, has said something “must be done” with the press over its negative coverage of the government. And Maricarmen Alva, the president of Congress, barred journalists from the Congress chamber for months, while lawmakers have also sought to criminalize reporting of leaked official information.
All of this turmoil comes at a critical time for Peruvian society, which is still reeling from the world’s highest COVID-19 mortality and now faces possible famine as a result of Russia’s war in Ukraine. The state’s ability to respond to citizens’ most basic needs—and therefore maintain trust in its institutions—has been drastically compromised by the leadership vacuum in the executive and the legislature’s failure to provide an alternative form of stable governance. This is all occurring in a society that already has the third-lowest level of support in the Americas for the notion that democracy is the best form of government.
Peruvians proved in November 2020, when nationwide protests brought down a de facto government widely viewed as illegitimate, that their patience is not unlimited. As Castillo staggers from scandal to scandal and Congress fails to provide good faith oversight, the big question today is what it will take for exasperated but so far largely passive citizens, ground down by the pandemic and endless misgovernment, to once again take to the streets.
There are now only two certainties in Peruvian politics: that with each passing day, the country inches closer to public disgust with the government, potentially boiling over into civil unrest; and unless that happens, citizens will have no chance of forcing the government and lawmakers to pass the deep political reforms needed to make the next presidential and congressional elections yield more qualified officials who will put the country’s interests above their own. Peru’s fragile democracy is on the line.
Simeon Tegel is a British journalist based in Lima, Peru. He regularly roams across Latin America, where he has lived for nearly two decades, and specializes in the environment, human rights, and democracy. His work has been widely published in numerous outlets, including the Washington Post, the Telegraph, the Independent, and USA Today.