Over the last decade, the concept of “democratic backsliding” has captured the attention of political scientists seeking to explain the unsettling increase in government overthrows and authoritarian behaviors around the world. In the Americas alone, several countries have faced democratic instability in recent years, from infamous cases like El Salvador and Venezuela to regional hegemons like Brazil and the United States. In retreating from democratic norms, states have begun institutionalizing authoritarian practices while further targeting political dissent by restricting rights and access to justice. In recent months, interim President Dina Boluarte and the Peruvian government’s response to political instability and nationwide protests exemplifies this worrisome trend.
2022-2023 Peruvian Protests & Government Response
Following the ousting of controversial leftist president Pedro Castillo in December 2022 succeeding an attempted power grab, thousands of Peruvians took to the streets. At its core, protesters’ demands have been primarily political, focused on new elections as well as broader changes. However, peasants from the country’s highlands, who felt represented by Castillo, have been aroused by long-held frustration with decades of unproductive, illegitimate governments and failed neoliberalism buttressed by the dominance of “Fujimorismo,” a deeply-conservative political ideology inspired by former right-wing dictator Alberto Fujimori. From the beginning, protestors had a major effect on the country, affecting the powerful mining and tourism sectors and targeting critical infrastructure like airports.
Struggling to maintain legitimacy amid abysmal popularity ratings, Boluarte, who came to power as a staunch pro-democracy leftist, joined Peru’s authoritarian far-right in supporting the severe repression of the protests through the use of public security forces. However, the government response far surpassed an appropriate one to the protesters’ occasional violent outbursts. All branches of the Peruvian government responded to the unrest by embracing authoritarian practices to discredit and dismantle any opposition.
Authoritarian Repression: The Excessive Military Force with Boluarte’s Support
A tale well-known to Latin American civil society and opposition groups, Peruvian security forces have responded with violence since the first days of protest. According to investigative reports, security forces killed around 50 protesters and injured over 1,000 in the first months of protests, leading to condemnation and calls to respect the rights of protesters from the international community. A report by Amnesty International found that authorities regularly committed extrajudicial killings, using live ammunition at close ranges during confrontation with protestors.
Not only has the Boluarte government refused to hold any of the perpetrators accountable, but it has justified the use of lethal force by labeling the opposition as terrorists and criminals. While this alone raises concerns regarding democratic protections in Peru, Boluarte’s actions are particularly disturbing when considering Peru’s recent history. Her actions come directly from the playbook of Fujimori and his far-right successors who attempted to discredit and justify violence against left-wing actors by equating them to the former Shining Path insurgency that wreaked havoc in the country’s Andean region. As the Amnesty International report points out, security forces have shown a clear bias in their use of force as a high proportion of extrajudicial killings have targeted protestors from indigenous, poor, and campesino backgrounds in highland regions where Castillo found an overwhelming majority of his support.
Despite international calls to respect the rights of protestors, authoritarian repression will likely prevail as protests continue. However, at the start of the renewed demonstrations, the right to protest is not only challenged by an authoritarian military and weak executive, but by an increasingly despotic judiciary who has dismantled democratic norms and effectively handed full control to Peru’s far-right congressional leaders.
Paving the Path to Authoritarianism: The Peruvian Judiciary
With Boluarte and the right-wing, Fujimorista-leaning Congress supporting the national security forces’ autocratic actions, one institution held the power to challenge Peru’s backsliding democracy: the country’s judiciary. However, the courts responsible for upholding human rights and constitutional democracy turned their backs on protestors and democratic advocates.
In recent years, pro-democracy advocates have repeatedly criticized Constitutional Court rulings that obfuscate the democratic system of checks and balances. For example, the court, which is appointed by Congress, has given the legislative body an incredibly broad power to impeach the president without reason (one of the causes of Castillo’s auto-coup which sparked the crisis to begin with). Coupled with a February 2023 ruling in which the court removed its own judicial oversight over Congress, the judicial body has effectively paved the way for right-wing congressional leaders to arbitrarily oust popularly-elected presidents with which it disagrees and threaten to do the same to unelected successors. Thus, even while the Peruvian congress is incapable of achieving much, it still holds significant influence over the executive with little check on its power. It is perhaps a strong explanation for why Boluarte has opted to shirk democratic norms by refusing calls for new elections, already exemplified by her statement that she plans to hold office through 2026 despite earlier promises to call for new elections.
These rulings, however, are not the most egregious in the Peruvian judiciary’s recent anti-democratic trend. In May 2023, the court broke with decades of both domestic and international human rights law, including the American Convention on Human Rights, in declaring that citizen protests are not protected under the constitution with the exception of hunger and labor strikes. The court justified its decision by claiming that it sought to prevent protesters from interfering with the rights of non-protesters by seizing important infrastructure like public transportation. However, in doing so, the ruling has stripped protesters of a key strategy.
While the ruling does not explicitly outlaw protests, it essentially strips participants of protection by allowing the government to arbitrarily arrest, harass, and target them. With the decision, the court unequivocally derogates the rights of protestors by institutionalizing impunity for governmental violence and repression against demonstrations. Though the ruling came in response to an appeal from protesters arrested during a 2016 road block, it will likely have chilling effects on the government’s current actions against protesters and inhibit future domestic legal remedies for any alleged human rights violations.
The Road Ahead
Ahead of the new wave of protests beginning in July 2023, the so-called “Taking of Lima,” Boluarte warned that the demonstrations would be “a threat to democracy.” While reports suggest that protesters have at times resorted to violence, it is clear that the government’s response proves to be a bigger concern. In Peru, a country that has already struggled with low government approval ratings and repeated impeachments of democratically-elected presidents, the governmental response to these protests might prove to be a nail in democracy’s coffin.
Experts in Latin American politics often note transnational trends in the region, so, in a time when democratic backsliding affects even the most entrenched democracies in the Americas, it is crucial to pay close attention to the ongoing crisis in Peru. Beyond this, international actors should work to amplify the demands of Peruvian civil society and human rights organizations, especially those representing the country’s marginalized indigenous and campesino communities as the Boluarte government and right-wing congress work to ruthlessly suppress and discredit them. Though immediate change is unlikely, increased international attention and pressure might help domestic advocates achieve their demands, most notably fair, free elections and institutional reforms that enshrine inclusive democracy and human rights.