Electoral Denialism: The Political Logic Behind the Crisis in Peru

Introduction. Since the transition to democracy in 2000—when the authoritarian regime of President Alberto Fujimori (1990-2000) collapsed—Peru has experienced a high degree of macroeconomic stability, but political stability has been elusive. There have been in six presidents since 2016, a pattern of volatility due in part due to conflicts between the legislature and the executive. The removal of President Pedro Castillo by the Congress last December, only 18 months after his inauguration in July 2021, and his replacement by Vice President Dina Boluarte, detonated deadly protests and a wave of harsh repression by the police and military. The violence triggered fears of a return to authoritarianism or, worse, a breakdown of public order in a country that has painful memories of bloody internal conflict in the not-remote past.

There are many reasons for the crisis in Peru, high levels of inequality being one of them. The unequal distribution of income reinforces other cleavages like racialization and the gap between town and countryside. Despite rapid growth there has been a persistent lack of investment in public infrastructure like healthcare and education even as private wealth has been concentrated in the hands of a few powerful economic groups. Peru’s deficient healthcare system was exposed when the country was battered by COVID-19, which, by claiming about 220,000 lives—the highest number of deaths per capita in the world. These are important background considerations, but they do not explain why the crisis has occurred now.

Views of the violence in Peru is highly polarized. The government and its supporters in Lima tend to focus on often wild allegations of foreign influence (notably Bolivia’s Evo Morales and the ponchos rojos), terrorism (with roots in the remnants of Sendero Luminoso under the leadership of “Comrade José”), and violence perpetrated by criminal organizations involved in drug-trafficking and illegal mining. The protesters, who have converged on Lima from the provinces, have expressed indignation at racism and abandonment by the state. But one reason has not been given sufficient attention: the refusal of political losers to accept the outcome of a free and fair election.

I define electoral denialism as the use of false allegations of fraud as part of a political strategy to overturn the result of a free and fair election. The strategy was pioneered by US president Donald Trump, but has since spread to other countries. Peru is not South American country to contend with it: newly elected Brazilian President Luis Inacio Lula da Silva has had deal with mobs of angry supporters of former president Jair Bolsonaro, who attempted to seize government offices in Brasilia in January based on specious claims of electoral fraud. But Peru is where electoral denialism has succeeded. To understand why, we need to go back to the election of 2021.

2021: A Polarized Election. The 2021 election was deeply polarized. The previous presidential election in 2016 was narrowly won (50.12 percent) by conservative technocrat Pedro Pablo Kuczynski in a runoff against Keiko Fujimori, the daughter of Alberto Fujimori. Although Fujimori lost, her party, Fuerza Popular, commanded a majority of 73 seats in a 130 seat Congress, which set the stage for bitter legislative-executive conflict. This conflict contributed to the impeachment of PPK, his replacement by Martín Vizcarra, the impeachment of Vizcarra and replacement by Manuel Merino, a member of Fujimori’s party, and then the replacement of Merino after six days by another member of Congress, Francisco Sagasti, who served out the remainder of PPK´s term.

The public perception that Keiko Fujimori had obstructed and destabilized the previous administration diminished Fujimori’s candidacy in 2021; moreover, she was accused to accepting illicit funds from the Odebrecht construction company in her campaigns in 2011 and 2016 and had to be placed on conditional release in order to run for office. Nonetheless, in the context of high fragmentation of political options, her mere 11 percent of the vote was enough to place her in a runoff against the unexpected front-runner, Pedro Castillo, a former rural teacher and union activist who had never before held public office but who won 13 percent of the vote largely by appealing to the frustrations of highland voters. Since Fuijmori represented the only option for the right she was able to improve her vote share in the runoff. It was not enough, however, and she narrowly lost to Castillo who captured 50.13 percent of the vote.

Fujimori immediately challenged the result, baselessly claiming fraud in polling stations across Peru, especially in the rural highlands where Castillo’s vote was concentrated. Despite the absence of evidence, and despite the validation of the results by local authorities and international observers, powerful economic groups, the tradition media, former military officers, and conservative political leaders repeated the spurious allegations of fraud and mobilized efforts to annul the election result both through the courts and in the streets. Social media amplified racist assertions that voters in the highlands were ignorant and unpatriotic, while counter protests by Castillo’s supporters heightened the atmosphere of tension and suspense. One of the arguments made by Fujimori’s legal team was that in some polling stations the vote in favor of Castillo was suspiciously high. This ignores the fact that in many rural communities, villagers coordinate their votes around candidates in order to increase their collective power. These claims were dismissed by the authorities.

Ungovernability and Deeper Polarization. Castillo was sworn into office on July 28, 2021, but the opposition was unrelenting. Congress attempted unsuccessfully to remove the president in November 2021 and March 2022. With new allegations of corruption against Castillo emerging, members of Congress hoped that they had enough votes to “vacate” the presidency on grounds of “moral incapacity.” A third vote was scheduled for December 7. It was to prevent this vote that Castillo announced his presidential self-coup. On the morning of the 7th, he announced that he was temporarily dissolving the Congress, creating an emergency government, and calling elections for a new Congress with the power to rewrite the nation’s constitution within nine months. What Castillo failed to appreciate is that such measures rarely succeed without broad public support and the backing of the armed forces. He had neither. Within hours Castillo has been detained and charged, and Congress overwhelmingly voted to remove him from office.

To the surprise of the limeño elite, Castillo’s removal was angrily repudiated by his supporters in the provinces. The betrayal they felt was intensified when Vice President Dina Boluarte pivoted to the opposition in Congress as soon as she donned the presidential sash, and then indicated her intention to remain in office until 2026 when Castillo’s term would normally have ended. The public uproar caused her to backtrack and propose bringing elections forward to April, 2024, but that was not enough to placate the growing protests which were met by disproportionate police and military repression.

The flashpoints of protest and repression that have claimed the lives of nearly 60 people between December and February occurred mainly in remote, rural areas of Peru – the south and central highlands, especially Puno, Cuzco, Apurimac, Arequipa, and Ayacucho – where Ms. Fujimori sought to annul as many as 200,000 votes. The protesters demanded that Boluarte resign, new general elections be held, as well as a constituent assembly to re-write the constitution. They are also demanding investigations into serious allegations of human rights abuses and justice for the victims of increasingly well-documented massacres.

The Way Forward: a Chilean-style constituent assembly? One of the paradoxes of the current crisis is that it has placed the idea of a constituent assembly on the agenda like never before. Castillo promised a constituent assembly to re-write Peru’s 1993 Constitution, which was adopted after Fujimori’s 1992 self-coup. The constitution enshrined a market-oriented approach to economic policy constrains the role of the state in the economy, which is one of the reasons for the stability in macroeconomic policy. Polls showed that public opinion was divided between those favouring constitutional moderate reforms and those wanting an entirely new constitution.

In office, Castillo proposed a Chilean-style strategy of changing the constitution. First, there would be a modification of the 1993 Constitution to allow a referendum to convene a constituent assembly. Second, assuming a favorable referendum, a constituent assembly would be elected in which and independents and Indigenous peoples would play a role. The sitting Congress would not be dissolved and would continue to legislate. Finally, the new magna carta would be submitted to a referendum for ratification. Congress peremptorily archived the proposal, but the current crisis may have reinforced the demand for a new constitution.

It is far from clear that a new constitution would solve Peru’s most urgent problems and, indeed, it could make them worse. A radical new constitution like the one that was proposed in Chile last year would almost certainly not be accepted. Moreover, there is often a temptation to use the constitution to solve problems that have to be addressed by other means. For example, in a referendum in 2018 Peruvian voters unwisely approved a proposal to end re-election to members of congress. This measure, motivated by frustration over corruption and self-dealing in Congress, helps explain the refusal of congress to accelerate the electoral timetable. Nevertheless, a well-designed and participatory process of constitutional change could be one way to rebuild a democratic consensus.

The constitution that Peru needs would be an economical and prosaic document. It should not impose any particular economic model on the country. Instead, it should establish a functional separation of powers, strengthen the role of the regions through bicameralism, enhance political party organizations, create mechanisms of popular participation, and uphold fundamental human rights and freedoms.

Conclusion.  As of the time of writing, three options are on the table. The first is to convene new general elections. Congress has refused to vote in favor of early elections four times and shows little sign of flexibility.  The primary beneficiaries of this strategy might well be, paradoxically, Keiko Fujimori and her party, for they are in the best position to return to the campaign and indeed this is an outcome that they have wanted all along.

The second possibility is new elections accompanied by a popular referendum to convene a constituent assembly. This option is anathema to Peru’s political establishment, but the very intransigence of the right may have made this more likely in the medium term. It appeals to those who believe new elections alone will be sufficient to change the way the political system is operating.

The third option is the worst: further militarization of the current regime and, as a consequence, continuing civic strife and violence.

Which pathway Peru chooses will depend crucially on political leadership—the very thing that is in such short supply. For now, it offers a cautionary tale of the high cost of electoral denialism.

Published in Spanish by Política Exterior, no. 212, March 2023: https://www.politicaexterior.com/articulo/negacionismo-electoral-la-logica-tras-la-crisis-en-peru/

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