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‘Self-coup’ backfires for Peru’s Pedro Castillo

Then-president Pedro Castillo takes part in an official ceremony in July, 2021.

It was quite a day for Peru and Pedro Castillo. Shortly after 11 am on Wednesday 7 December, the then president was announcing a coup d’état, a state of emergency and an immediate dissolution of the Congress that was due to vote, that day, on whether or not to impeach him for alleged corruption.

In a televised address, and with hands trembling, Castillo announced ‘we have decided to establish an exceptional government’ and ‘a new Congress with constituent powers to draw up a new constitution’ which would be convened ‘within no more than nine months’.

A few hours later he was in police custody, accused of ‘rebellion against constitutional order’ and his vice-president Dina Boluarte, having decried his shocking ‘self-coup’, was being sworn in as Peru’s first female president.

Even Castillo’s own (now ex-) lawyer Ben ji Espinoza was blindsided. He told the left-of-centre La Republica daily that when he had spoken with Castillo at 9 am that morning, he had no inkling of what was to happen two hours later.

Most likely Castillo would have survived this third attempt to impeach him as his enemies in the hostile right-wing dominated Congress did not have sufficient numbers to win the vote.

Castillo has responded to problems by changing ministers with a frequency with which most leaders might change their socks

But, said the lawyer, Castillo seemed to have gone behind his back and ‘followed the worst possible advice’. It was an act of ‘political suicide’, Espinoza added.

Most of Castillo’s ministers seemed to agree. One after another they resigned shortly after his address was televised. A handful of advisors waited until after he was impeached. That was to come speedily. An emergency session of Congress was called and 101 members voted to impeach Castillo (including members of his former party, Free Peru), 10 abstained and only 6 voted against. Never had Congress seemed so united.

Under constant attack

Castillo, often described in international media as a ‘leftist’ president, had been under attack from the moment he beat right-winger Keiko Fujimori in a surprise electoral win in July 2021.

The former primary-school teacher, a political neophyte, gained popular support in the elections for not being part of the political elite represented by the front-runner Keiko Fujimori, daughter of the corrupt and imprisoned dictator, Alberto Fujimori.

Few of Castillo’s pro-equality political promises were to see the light of day. His rule has been characterized by chaos and internal division as well as external hostility. Criticism on his leadership came from all sides, politically; in the media it often took the form of classism and racism.

The ongoing conflict between the executive and Congress had a paralyzing effect on governance, making bad things worse. Peru suffered the worst death rate in the world from Covid-19. It is now one of the countries most afflicted by food insecurity and the global cost of living crisis.

Castillo has responded to problems by changing ministers with a frequency with which most leaders might change their socks. ‘All he does is hand out posts,’ commented Peruvian former advisor and academic Carlos Monge, in a recent web conference of the Peru Support Group, adding that it was impossible to engage the president on policy matters.

The poncho-wearing leader made much of his Indigenous roots, but the country’s Indigenous groups saw little in terms of action on territorial rights or defence of Indigenous people, with illegal logging and cattle ranching expanding under this watch.

One positive lesson to emerge from the drama is that the attempted coup was such an abject failure

However, Castillo’s ability to hold on to power, for 16 months, has been a real achievement by national standards – in 2020 Peru had three presidents in the course of just five days.

Corruption has been constant feature in Peruvian politics in recent decades, and it is no surprise that Castillo was facing serious allegations, which he denied and dismissed as an attempt to oust him from power.

‘National unity’

Also unsurprising is that confronting corruption was top of the list of the country’s new president, Dina Boluarte, at her fast-tracked swearing-in on Wednesday.

In her speech, the 60-year-old lawyer, who was recently elected vice-president alongside Castillo, highlighted her humble background – similar in some ways to her former running mate’s. She was the youngest child of a poor family in rural Apurimac, who worked her way up to high positions in the legal profession.

She also called for a political truce and for ‘national unity’. Responding by tweet, her main political opponent, Keiko Fujimori, has welcomed the move, saying this is ‘not the time for left or right’ but for unity. This might suggest a thawing in the standoff between the executive and congress which has so paralyzed governance. It remains to be seen, however, if Boluarte avoids capture by the Right (a criticism levelled against Castillo) and can govern in such a way as to build unity. Just months after her election as vice-president, Boluarte was expelled from her party after she said in a newspaper interview she had never shared ‘the ideology of Free Peru’.

It’s also worth pointing out that among the population, Congress has been enjoying approval rates even lower than ex-president Castillo’s. ‘Que se vayan todos,’ the slogan made famous in Argentina and roughly translated as ‘to hell with the lot of them’, probably captures the mood.

One positive lesson to emerge from the drama is that the attempted coup was such an abject failure. It got no support from the country’s main institutions, including the combined armed forces and the police, the Catholic Church, or any political party. This was hailed by La Republica’s political commentators as a sign that Peruvian democracy might not be in such a parlous state as feared.

Boluarte’s presidency was swiftly recognized by other countries in the region, including the Organisation of American States. Most leaders had lamented Castillo’s coup attempt, including his closest ally, Mexican leader Andrés Manuel López Obrador, although he offered him political asylum in Mexico.

Boluarte indicated at her inauguration that she intends to rule until 2026, the date when Castillo’s presidency was due to end. But there are already some calls for earlier elections. Another space to watch.


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