Weekly Report - 19 January 2023 (WR-23-03)

Protesters converge on Lima as Boluarte vows to fight on

After a turbulent six weeks in office, Peru’s President Dina Boluarte’s troubled tenure has reached a critical juncture, with her political survival at stake. Protesters from across the country are gathering in Lima for a big march on 19 January. The release from custody of former president Pedro Castillo, who was impeached by congress on 7 December after attempting a self-coup, is not high on their list of demands. Instead, driven by pent-up frustrations at entrenched social and economic inequality, marginalisation, and state neglect, and incensed by the excessive use of force by the police since the start of the protests, during which 53 lives have been lost, they are demanding the resignation of Boluarte, the dissolution of congress, the staging of elections this year, and the convening of a constituent assembly to draft a constitution infused with social justice.

President Boluarte gave a televised address on 13 January refusing to resign, promising to secure an electoral way out of the current political crisis, and apologising if the government had “erred” in any way in its pursuit of “peace and calm”. On the same day, she swore in three new cabinet ministers after resignations over the high number of civilian fatalities in violent clashes with the police in recent weeks.

One of those to depart was Víctor Ríos, the interior minister included, along with Boluarte and two others, in an investigation announced by the attorney general’s office on 10 January into alleged “genocide” in relation to the lethal police crackdown [WR-23-02]. Vicente Romero Fernández, a retired police general, replaces Ríos, becoming Boluarte’s third interior minister in six weeks.

On 14 January, the day after her national address, Boluarte extended a 30-day state of emergency in Lima, and the south-eastern regions of Puno and Cusco, as well as other provinces, for a further 30 days in an attempt to restore law and order. This could inflame the situation, however, if it leads to more police excesses. The disjuncture between Boluarte’s legal legitimacy (as next in the line of constitutional succession) and her political legitimacy is growing. If the march in Lima results in a bloodbath, it could well bring the curtain down on her presidency.

Boluarte’s disapproval rating nationally stands at 71%, according to a nationwide poll conducted by the Instituto de Estudios Peruanos (IEP) for the national daily La República, and published on 15 January. It stands at 87% in central regions and 80% in the south, however, compared with 61% in metropolitan Lima. The same poll found that 60% of respondents felt the protests were justified and 58% felt there had been excesses (a figure that ranged between 60% and 69% everywhere except metropolitan Lima where it was just 51%).

The disconnect between Lima and the regions is far from a new development. It has defined Peruvian politics for decades. The problem for Boluarte is that despite her protestations to the contrary, citing her poor, rural roots, this poll feeds into the perception of protesters in the regions that she has been captured by the right and is merely a stooge, serving the interests of the Lima elite to thwart them. The support of all of the right-wing parties in congress and the opposition of the left-wing parties, in spite of her left-wing credentials, makes it much harder for Boluarte to convince the regions that she is governing for all of the country.

Boluarte accused the regional governor of Puno, Richard Hancco, who only assumed the position on 1 January after his victory in last October’s regional elections, of not wanting to resolve the protests during her address on 13 January. She urged him to work together with her to “defend democracy [and] stop polarising the country”. Hancco, a former prosecutor and member of the local party Frente Amplio para el Desarrollo del Pueblo (Fadep), responded by telling Boluarte to come to Puno if she believes in developing the regions. He also advocated the establishment of a dialogue table.

Marching on Lima

A rallying cry rapidly spread on social media this week for protesters from the regions to “seize Lima” on 18 and 19 January. These protesters, comuneros, and ronderos, largely drawn from poor, indigenous, or peasant communities, set off for Lima from different parts of the country, but mainly the south, by bus and lorry, or any other available mode of transport. Boluarte endeavoured to defuse tensions ahead of their arrival by saying “seize Lima by all means but in peace”. She promised to speak with the protesters on their arrival to discuss “their social agenda” but insisted that “their political agenda is unviable” as the country needs a functioning government and it takes time to organise elections.

The prime minister, Alberto Otárola, for his part, said on 16 January that Boluarte’s resignation would resolve nothing and only “open the doors to anarchy”. Boluarte’s resignation would certainly not end the protests. If anything they would be likely to intensify. For one thing, it would usher in the presidency of the head of congress, José Williams, a member of the right-wing Avanza País and a former commander of the armed forces, as the next in the line of succession.

Williams, perhaps conscious of the ill-fated five-day government of Manuel Merino, the congressional president who succeeded the impeached Martín Vizcarra (2018-2020) as national president in November 2020, has been broadly supportive of Boluarte. On 16 January Williams and the congressional leadership agreed to bring forward the start of the next legislative session from 1 March to 15 February so that the second vote on the constitutional reform required to bring elections forward from April 2026 to April 2024 can be held sooner. This gesture is still likely to fall well short of placating protesters, who have a visceral distrust of congress.

Amid the political and social chaos, Prime Minister Otárola sought to convey the impression that all is well with the economy during a meeting with the accredited diplomatic corps and representatives of international organisations in Lima on 14 January. “Democracy in Peru is guaranteed along with the strength of institutions…the country has good stable conditions for investment,” Otárola claimed.

In recent years, investors in Peru have grown reconciled to the fact that political instability has become entrenched. But they will be most perturbed by the prospect that these protests will not be short-lived and that fresh elections, once again, might not resolve their underlying causes.

Wishful thinking

President Boluarte named 2023 the ‘year of unity, peace, and development’, which must be used by all state institutions on official documents. It is doubtful whether any of the official names given to years by governments since the practice began in 1962 have been less apposite. While a commendable goal, 2023 looks far more likely to be remembered for disunity, conflict, and regression.

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