Photo: Peruvian President Pedro Castillo attending the United Nations General Assembly in 2021. Source: Mary Altaffer / Reuters.
Running for the presidency under a platform that sought to create deep and extreme changes to the divided and unequal political system, rural schoolteacher Pedro Castillo portrayed himself as an outsider hero who would include the marginalized sectors of the country and fight the existing political elites. Yet, one year into his presidency, the populist president overshadows his promises with actions that put at risk the longest uninterrupted democratic period in Peruvian history.
Throughout the electoral campaign and the early beginnings of his administration, several alarms rang, warning the population of the authoritarian threat Castillo would pose to the country alongside his party Perú Libre. Immersed in the uncertainty of how a Castillo administration would impact the country, several sectors of the Peruvian population feared their country would follow the steps of Chávez’s Venezuela. Whether it was because of his autocratic rhetoric that could backslide the state of democracy or the fear of expropriation of private industries leading to an economic catastrophe, the nature of Castillo and Perú Libre’s proposals, if achieved, could have assured such a crisis.
Yet, having experienced a year into Castillo’s administration and being isolated from the heat of the electoral campaign that once raised more fears than hope begs the question: how much has Peruvian democracy decayed during this administration? Though it might be appealing to believe that the indications Castillo and Perú Libre have given are enough to assume deep backsliding, the gridlocked political system and Castillo’s undeniable incompetence have acted as checks on his more extreme proposals.
Threats to Democracy
Since the electoral campaign in 2021, Castillo has engaged in populist rhetoric undermining the legitimacy of the current democratic institutions in the country. Although Castillo’s campaign staple movement for a new constitution has not been backed by any sound reason or necessity other than its origins under the Fujimori regime, he has blamed the current magna carta as the cause of the lack of widespread access to essential services such as education and healthcare. And while addressing those problems is crucial to reducing inequality in the country, the solution is far from being a constitutional matter, and pointing fingers at the magna carta does nothing more than delegitimize it. Autocrats have utilized the same playbook as an executive aggrandizement plan like Hugo Chávez did in Venezuela, where the Bolivarian regime used constitutional reforms to prolong their mandates and consolidate its position in power.
In a campaign rally, Castillo claimed the Constitutional Tribunal, an essential checking institution autonomous to the three branches of government that acts as an equivalent to the U.S. Supreme Court, had turned its back on the people and that his government would deactivate it to elect justices by popular vote. Similarly, Castillo has repeatedly attacked the media for serving as political actors, while his prime minister has publicly labeled one of the leading media outlet groups as corrupt. At a recent public event, his delegitimizing efforts were on full display when he asked attendees whether they trusted the press and pollsters—in an attempt to seemingly spread skepticism over their integrity.
In a country where inequality dictates the access and quality of essential services such as healthcare and education, state officials must transparently implement efficient steps to improve conditions. Rallying a skeptical population where only 21 percent is satisfied with democracy to support policies that erode the public institutions that act as checks on the executive as the panacea to Peru’s problems could lead to dire consequences. It could further the widespread rejection of the system or leave the door open for a competent autocrat in an upcoming election. Rather than showing a genuine commitment to tackle the issues the country has, Castillo has seized the present social cleavages in a highly polarized country as political capital to support his movement.
Transparency has also been one of the most absent elements throughout his administration. Unlike most populists who try to seize every opportunity in the media to spread their message, Castillo is epitomized by his secrecy and avoidance of interviews. Since the beginning of his administration in July 2021, he did not give a single interview to either state-owned or independent media until late January, when he gave a series of interviews for both local and international outlets. In an interview with CNN Español, when asked about the corruption crises of his administration and the rampant disapproval rates he faced, Castillo responded with empty answers appealing to the will of the people as a shield against his accusations while openly undermining the integrity of the media and pollsters. Since then, he has only given one live interview to the state-owned TV channel, dodging, once again, the corruption allegations against his administration.
During his first months in power, he frequently visited a private house in Lima late at night to meet with businesspeople and lobbyists rather than at the Government Palace, where it is mandatory to provide a public registry of visitors. It was later disclosed to the public that companies allegedly linked to those present in said meetings and even to the house residents, were favored in contracting processes with the government worth as much as PEN 232.5 million (USD $59.6 million). Currently, Castillo is being investigated by the Attorney General’s office for the alleged crime of influence peddling, becoming the first president in Peruvian history to be investigated while in office.
In response to the coverage that several news outlets are having over his investigation, Castillo has presented a bill to congress that would penalize the diffusion of reserved information in a penal process for up to three years in prison. Similarly, Perú Libre presented last year bills that would give the government authority to control the content that media outlets were allowed to disseminate under declared emergencies. Laws of this nature would cloud the current administration’s several scandals and allow an aggrandizing executive to act with no checks by the population.
The high secrecy over crucial matters to public knowledge and corruption allegations that characterize his administration, alongside the attempts he and Peru Libre have presented to deliberately curtail press and media liberties, represents an immense threat to Peruvian democracy. They act as a blatant erosion of the accountability the executive is obligated to serve its citizens. Instead of upholding his campaign promise to replace old-fashioned politics, Castillo is showing he is no different than his predecessors.
Checks on Backsliding
In a year, Castillo has managed to sink the popularity he once held while hosting massive rallies during the electoral campaign. While the support of the population has been essential for other autocrats in the region, such as Hugo Chávez or Rafael Correa, to consolidate their grip on power through their executive aggrandizement policies, President Castillo falls short in this aspect. His disapproval rate has significantly risen from 45 percent a month into his tenure to 74 percent in July of this year. Even the country’s southern region, the bastion of his electoral campaign and political support, where he won an average of 75 percent of the vote across departments, appears dissatisfied, with 56 percent currently disapproving. Due to his unpopularity, it is extremely unlikely that any of his authoritative proposals would receive a green light.
Similarly, the checks and opposition from congress significantly limit the extent to which Castillo’s proposals can be approved. Although Castillo started his tenure with 37 legislators from Perú Libre and a volatile number of allies from other parties, the party faced an internal schism leading to the fragmentation of its members into different independent legislative groups. The crisis inside the party extended to the point where resignations did not come only from legislators but also from the executive. After being publicly invited to resign by the party leadership and its congresspeople, President Castillo stepped down from the political organization, leaving him with no official backing in congress.
Congress can also present impeachment motions as a check that, if approved, lead to a voting process that can remove the president if the motion garners 87 votes. The reasons include the president’s death, acceptance of resignation, and “permanent moral or physical incapacity” declared by congress—a malleable legal device with different interpretations that has often been used by opposition members in the past five years trying to remove heads of state. Since 2016, across the five administrations Peru had, seven motions of this kind were presented, five were approved to be debated, and two led to either the resignation or removal of a president. So far in his tenure, Castillo has survived two impeachment attempts. Lacking allies in Congress, the approval of any extreme proposal led by Castillo endangering the strength of democratic institutions is unlikely to be approved through the legislature, and any blatant authoritarian move is likely to receive backlash in the form of an impeachment motion.
But above anything, Castillo’s administration epitomizes an incompetent government that is incapable of reaching consensus within its own body, given its lack of syntony and cohesion. While his then Minister of Justice, Anibal Torres (now Prime Minister), guaranteed that the president would not support the Constitutional Assembly proposal in August last year, the president later presented a bill to congress pushing the motion in April. In only one year, Castillo has named four cabinets that have constantly shifted because of resignations and impeachment motions led by the parliament. Such is the gravity of the executive crisis that, on average, a minister is substituted every nine days. Having named 59 ministers for the 19 existing offices, Castillo holds the highest recorded number of cabinets a president has had in their first year since Peru’s return to democracy in 2000. More than acting as an expanding executive trying to strategically take over the different institutions of the state with his government, Castillo has demonstrated desperate efforts to seek allies as a lifeline to delay his sustained decline.
Nonetheless, this should not be the reason, by any means, to believe that the end is near for future authoritarian meddling in Peru. While the country has rejected Castillo, the inequality, political dissatisfaction, societal polarization, and broken party structure which catapulted him into the nation’s highest office persist. Of these inputs, the broken party system that is negligent to gatekeep would-be authoritarians remains the most accessible way to protect Peruvian democracy in future elections. Therefore, it is essential to solidify these authoritarian-enabling party institutions. Otherwise, with no clear and deep efforts to face the lingering structural issues in the political system, there is no guarantee that incompetence will remain as a check on democratic decay.
Marco Navarro Stanic is an intern at Global Americans and is pursuing a BA in Political Science at Vanderbilt University.