The past year has seen political instability sweep much of Latin America. But Peru still belongs in a class of its own. Last month, the country cycled through three presidents in just one week.
The crisis amounted to the most serious test of the country’s democratic institutions in two decades. In early November, Congress voted to remove President Martín Vizcarra from office.
Many saw the move as a soft coup. The lawmakers who came together to oust Vizcarra shared little more in common than their opposition to his anti-corruption agenda, which included ending parliamentary immunity and cracking down on illicit campaign finance.
On top of that, they installed an unpopular lawmaker as interim president, Manuel Merino, who tried and failed to get the military to back a previous move to oust Vizcarra. This all occurred against the objections of ordinary Peruvians, three quarters of whom wanted Vizcarra to finish his term.
Merino got as far as swearing in a cabinet before Peruvians took to the streets in numbers not seen in twenty years. Police met the demonstrations with a wave of repression, killing two young protestors and injuring and disappearing dozens more. Under growing public pressure, Merino stepped down.
Now, Peru appears to be returning to “normal”—or at least to a bare minimum of stability. Congress voted in a new interim president, centrist lawmaker Francisco Sagasti, on November 16. Sagasti promises to hold the country together until its April 2021 general elections, which are already turning into a referendum on who is to blame for last month’s chaos.
As the dust settles, analysts have rushed to diagnose what’s wrong with Peru’s democracy. They haven’t come up short on possible answers: entrenched corruption, a Congress full of first-time politicians, deficient checks and balances, and above all, Peru’s spectacularly weak political parties make the list.
All of these factors likely contributed to pushing Peru’s democracy to the brink. But ultimately, the power grab failed. The question remains why. After all, in recent years Latin America has seen many power grabs by corrupt actors succeed.
In Honduras in 2009 and Paraguay in 2012, lawmakers booted controversial presidents Manuel Zelaya and Fernando Lugo from office despite widespread opposition from civil society, and installed allies in their place.
Coalitions have also emerged in recent years to oppose anti-corruption reforms. Politicians under investigation for bribery and embezzlement dealt fatal blows to the International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG) and Brazil’s Lava Jato investigation. Today, many of these same politicians remain in office.
So, what makes Peru different? The sheer scale of recent protests and the courage of the demonstrators cannot be discounted, but another less obvious factor may have made all the difference: Peru’s notoriously weak party system.
The negative consequences of Peru’s incoherent party system are everywhere. Because politicians constantly shift between parties and create brand-new ones overnight, voters have a hard time holding incumbents accountable. Without parties, there is little organizational glue to unite politicians around a shared agenda. This turns governing into an uphill battle for any president—even a relatively popular one like Vizcarra.
But Peru’s mess of a party system also has a silver lining for democracy: it means the opponents of the rule of law are just as disorganized as its defenders. Merino and the lawmakers who initially supported the power grab lacked strong party organizations that might have helped them stave off infighting, reach internal compromises, and keep a tight grip on power. Weak parties sew unstable democratic politics, but in Peru’s case, they might have also just prevented outright democratic breakdown.
“Democracy Without Parties”
Peru hasn’t always had weak parties. After the country’s 1980 transition to democracy, four parties spread across the ideological spectrum routinely competed for office. The populist American Revolutionary Popular Alliance (APRA) and centrist Popular Action parties attracted hundreds of thousands of committed followers.
By the late 1980s, however, hyperinflation and the brutal Shining Path insurgency deflated the established parties’ popular support. The ten-year rule of authoritarian president Alberto Fujimori put the final nail in the parties’ collective coffin. Mass demonstrations drove Fujimori from office in 2000. But coherent, organized parties never came back to life.
Instead, Peru became a “democracy without parties” according to political scientists Steven Levitsky and Maxwell Cameron. Most politicians run on personal appeal and operate as free agents. Parties today resemble what the scholar of Peruivan politics Mauricio Zavaleta describes as “coalitions of independents”: empty vessels that only briefly bring candidates together at election time.
This means lawmakers rarely agree on much of anything. However, many have settled on at least one unfortunate point of consensus in recent years: opposition to anti-corruption reforms.
Vizcarra had maneuvered to push through a raft of anti-corruption reforms since 2018, the year he unexpectedly found himself in the presidency after his predecessor, Pedro Pablo Kuczynski, resigned. Among other measures, the reform agenda included replacing judges who were in the pockets of politicians and regulating low-quality private universities which major politicians used to bankroll their campaigns.
These reforms were as popular with the public as they were unpopular with most lawmakers. Vizcarra had clashed with Congress before, but in the past he had always come out on the winning side.
The body briefly removed Vizcarra from office in 2019, but the move lacked broad public support and military backing. Vizcarra was quickly reinstated, and fresh congressional elections in January 2020 saw two of the biggest anti-reform groups—Keiko Fujimori’s Fuerza Popular and what was left of the APRA party—lose most of their seats. A motion by a fringe group of Vizcarra opponents, including Merino, to remove the president in September also ultimately went nowhere.
Divided from the start
Ironically, Vizcarra himself may have given his opponents the critical push to unite. Facing a second motion to vacate the presidency that looked unlikely to pass, he reminded lawmakers that 68 of them (out of a total of 130 in Congress) were undergoing their own investigations. Mauricio Zavaleta, in an interview with Global Americans, described this as a tactical blunder: “The change in Vizcarra’s discourse made the lawmakers feel threatened,” and they briefly came together to depose Vizcarra.
Each congressional faction had its own motives. The nativist Union for Peru party angled to secure the release of its jailed founder, Antauro Humala. Two parties run by private university magnates, Podemos Peru and Alliance for Progress (APP), were eager to derail proposed regulations on higher education. Fujimoristas and APRA loyalists needed to stop judicial reform to keep judges in their pocket on the bench.
Politicians from the evangelical FREPAP party had their own hardline social conservative and populist agenda to advance. Even most leftists in Congress voted against Vizcarra on relatively flimsy evidence that he was involved in corruption earlier in his political career. As Zavaleta explained, they did so in a bid to preserve their brand as committed anti-corruption fighters.
Together, these groups supplied the 105 votes to remove Vizcarra from office. But that doesn’t mean they agreed on much more. In recent months, these parties have clashed on everything from how to fight COVID-19 to whether the country should embrace more populist economic measures to offset the ongoing devastating recession.
Their unity vanished once the task turned from removing Vizcarra to governing. If interim president Merino had faced the challenge of bargaining between three or four coherent parties in Congress, he might have held together a coalition. Fortunately for Peru, he did not.
Merino managed to secure approval for a cabinet, but its right-wing profile alienated the leftist Broad Front coalition. FREPAP’s scattered legislators took off next. As it became clear just how unpopular the power grab attempt was with the public, university magnate Cesar Acuña and his APP party also abandoned ship.
Mass demonstrations—in which an incredible 37 percent of Peruvians reported participating—fueled even more fragmentation. Especially after police cracked down on protestors, calculations for politicians in Congress changed. Zavaleta observed, “no one wanted to head towards 2021 elections looking like the allies of police brutality. Everyone looked for an exit route.” Without disciplined parties to keep them in line, the politicians were free to go.
For now, Peru seems to have avoided the worst-case scenario. Whether Peru can keep up its momentum on anti-corruption reform is another question. The weeks since Merino stepped down have offered mixed signals. Lawmakers eager to distance themselves from the failed power grab voted in Sagasti, a member of the only party to unanimously oppose Vizcarra’s ouster and take to the streets with demonstrators. Reform-minded politicians are leading in the polls for April 2021 presidential elections, including the Purple Party’s Julio Guzman, who marched with protestors last month.
But Peru’s Constitutional Court also decided to leave open whether and when Congress can use its power to vacate the presidency again. And of course, political parties are as divided and unstable as ever, threatening to destabilize Peru all over again—even if April 2021 elections deliver a win for reformers.
Calls for new, more serious parties in Peru make sense. As Patricio Navia writes at Americas Quarterly, “without a well-functioning institutionalized party system, Peruvian democracy will remain trapped in instability and scandals.”
Unfortunately, we cannot assume that Peru can reform its way out of weak parties. Research on party-building shows that raising barriers to party formation and tightening up campaign finance laws don’t have much of a track record of producing stronger parties.
But there is also another more basic assumption we should question: that stronger parties would have averted Peru’s most recent crisis. “You basically have these very weak powers, where one cannot dominate the other. That’s how Peru’s democracy persists,” explained Zavaleta. For better or worse, things seem likely to stay that way.
Will Freeman is a Ph.D. candidate in Politics at Princeton University. You can follow him on Twitter @WillGFreeman