Image via Pedro Castillo Terrones, Wikimedia Commons.
How not to stage an autogolpe
On Wednesday, December 7, 2022, Peruvian President Pedro Castillo Terrones gathered his inner circle for a meeting in the neobaroque Government Palace in the Main Square of Lima.1 For 16 months Castillo, a rural schoolteacher who had never before held public office at any level, had struggled to govern Peru. His narrow electoral victory in a runoff vote in June 2021 had come as a shock to the political system. It turned out that winning was the easy part – governing was much harder. Castillo was sworn into office on July 28, 2021, but the opposition was unrelenting. On two occasions – November 2021 and March 2022 – Congress had sought unsuccessfully to remove him.
In a plenary session on December 1, 2022, the Congress, armed with fresh allegations of corruption against Castillo and his entourage, had initiated its third impeachment process. It demanded that the President appear on the afternoon of December 7 to answer charges of corruption and “permanent moral incapacity,” after which a motion for impeachment (or “vacancy”) would be put to a vote. Although allegations of corruption are not valid reasons for declaring the presidency vacant under Peru’s constitution, Castillo feared that the third vote on impeachment might pass.2 This led him to contemplate a preemptive strike against Congress.
Among those present at the meeting on the morning of December 7 were Betssy Chávez Chino, a neophyte lawyer from the south of Peru who had held several cabinet positions before being appointed Premier of the Council of Ministers. She was accompanied by her adviser, Aníbal Torres Vásquez, a former premier. Torres came from the same region as Castillo and was a trusted confidant of the President. Willy Huerta, the Minister of the Interior, was also in attendance, along with several others. At that meeting, Castillo decided to initiate Latin America’s briefest and most inept presidential autogolpe, or self-coup.
An autogolpe occurs when a sitting president closes Congress, suspends constitutional guarantees, purges the courts and rules by decree until a referendum can be held to give retrospective legitimacy to the violation of the constitutional order.3 Experience shows that autogolpes only work when the president has broad public support and, crucially, the backing of the armed forces.
The idea of an autogolpe may have been rattling around inside Castillo’s head for several months. He had received a sympathetic note from former president Alberto Fujimori, written from Fujimori’s cell in the Barbadillo Prison on the outskirts of Lima. The note was intended to curry favour in the hope of a pardon, but it may also have encouraged Castillo to mull over the autogolpe option. On April 5, 1992, President Fujimori had closed Congress, suspended the constitution and proclaimed emergency rule. In response to domestic and international pressures, he convened an election for a “democratic constituent congress” to draft a new constitution in which he would be allowed to run for reelection. The constitution was approved, and Fujimori was reelected in 1995. In 2000 he fled amid a corruption scandal, and he was arrested when he attempted to return to Peru in 2006.
Pedro Castillo faced even tougher opposition from Congress than had Fujimori in 1990–92. Castillo was accused by Patricia Benavides, Peru’s Fiscal de la Nación (the equivalent of attorney general), of being the ringleader of a criminal organization within the public sector responsible for acts of corruption involving payouts to family and friendly members of Congress. Witnesses were coming forward and there was a drumbeat of allegations in the media.
It was in this context that, shortly before noon on December 7, the President spoke to the nation. Visibly shaking as he read from a prepared text, Castillo angrily condemned obstruction by Congress before announcing that he had decided to establish a “government of exception” that would dissolve Congress and convene a new Congress empowered to rewrite the constitution with the aim of reestablishing the rule of law and democracy. He also announced the reorganization of the judiciary and the office of the attorney general.
As power grabs go, it was remarkably ill-conceived. The resignation of the army chief earlier that morning suggests Castillo sought but failed to secure military backing. It was only after his speech that Castillo asked Interior Minister Huerta to reach out to the general commander of the national police of Peru, which Huerta did on WhatsApp. Castillo then gave the order to close Congress and intervene in the attorney general’s office. While Castillo was doing this, however, the joint chiefs of Peru’s armed forces and police were already gathering in their headquarters across town, where they quickly agreed to announce their loyalty to the constitution and their refusal to follow Castillo’s orders. It was all over before it began.
Congress called an immediate motion to impeach the president. Members of Congress who might earlier have voted against impeachment flipped. The presidency was “vacated” with 102 votes in favour (well above the 87-vote supermajority needed in Peru’s 130-seat Congress). Only six members of Congress voted against impeachment and 12 abstained; leading cabinet officials and ambassadors quickly tendered their resignations. Congress replaced Castillo with Vice President Dina Boluarte, his constitutional successor.
While members of Congress were still voting, Castillo, accompanied by his family, fled the palace in a motorcade. He instructed his driver to go to the Mexican embassy where he intended to seek political asylum. He didn’t get far. While caught in traffic congestion, the presidential security detail received instructions from the head of state security to detain Castillo, who was promptly taken into custody and later transferred to Barbadillo Prison.
Betrayal, protest and violence
Boluarte had been loyal to Castillo during previous impeachment votes, but she too faced charges of corruption. This vulnerability may explain her dramatic pivot to embrace the right-wing opposition – which Castillo’s supporters considered a stunning betrayal. Although she enjoyed scant public support, as soon as she donned the presidential sash Boluarte indicated her intention to remain in office until 2026, when Castillo’s term would normally have ended.
Few Peruvians wanted to see Castillo return to office, but Boluarte’s pivot was angrily repudiated, especially in the provinces. The public uproar led Boluarte to propose bringing elections forward to April 2024, a move that was not accepted by Congress; nor was it enough to placate the growing protests. The protesters demanded Boluarte’s resignation, new general elections and a constituent assembly to rewrite the constitution.
The protests were met with disproportionate police and military repression. Flashpoints of protest and repression claimed the lives of 60 people between December and February, mainly in remote rural areas of Peru – the south and central highlands, especially Puno, Cuzco, Apurimac, Arequipa and Ayacucho. The protesters demanded investigations into human rights crimes and justice for the victims of increasingly well-documented massacres.4
Why did Peru erupt in protest? The government and local media tended to focus on often wild and baseless allegations of foreign influence (notably Bolivia’s Evo Morales and his supporters, the so-called “Ponchos Rojos”), terrorism (with roots in the remnants of Sendero Luminoso under the leadership of “Comrade José”), and violence perpetrated by criminal organizations involved in drug trafficking and illegal mining.5
Foreign journalists were quick to note the ways in which a history of racial discrimination and neglect by the state had created potential for protest.6 They have a point. Peru’s unequal distribution of income reinforces ethnic divisions and the gap between town and countryside. Despite rapid growth there has been a persistent lack of investment in public infrastructure, notably health care and education, even as private wealth has been increasingly concentrated in a few powerful economic groups. Peru’s deficient health care system was exposed when the country was battered by COVID-19, which claimed about 220,000 lives – the highest number of deaths per capita in the world.7
These are important background considerations, but one reason has not been given sufficient attention: the refusal of political losers to accept the outcome of a free and fair election.
Polarization and electoral denialism
The 2021 election was deeply polarized. The previous presidential election in 2016 was narrowly won –50.12 per cent – by conservative technocrat Pedro Pablo Kuczynski in a runoff against Keiko Fujimori, the daughter of Alberto Fujimori. Although Fujimori lost, her party, Fuerza Popular, commanded a majority of 73 seats in the 130-seat Congress, which set the stage for bitter legislative-executive conflict. This conflict contributed to the impeachment of Kuczynski and his replacement by Martín Vizcarra; the impeachment of Vizcarra and his replacement by Manuel Merino, a member of Fujimori’s party; and then, after six days, the replacement of Merino by another member of Congress, Francisco Sagasti, who served out the remainder of Kuczynski’s term.
The public perception that Keiko Fujimori had obstructed and destabilized the previous administration diminished her candidacy in 2021; moreover, having been accused of accepting illicit funds from the Odebrecht construction company in her campaigns in 2011 and 2016, she had to be placed on conditional release to run for office. Nonetheless, her 11 per cent in a crowded field was enough to place her in a runoff against the unexpected and unknown front-runner, Pedro Castillo, who won 13 per cent of the vote largely by appealing to the frustrations of rural highland voters. Since Fuijmori represented the only option for the right, she was able to improve her vote share in the runoff. It was not quite enough, however, and she narrowly lost to Castillo who captured 50.13 per cent of the vote.
Fujimori immediately challenged the result, alleging fraud in polling stations across Peru, especially in the rural highlands where Castillo’s vote was concentrated. Despite the absence of evidence, and despite the validation of the results by local authorities and international observers, powerful economic groups, the traditional media, former military officers and conservative political leaders repeated the spurious allegations of fraud and mobilized efforts to annul the election result both through the courts and in the streets. Social media amplified racist assertions that voters in the highlands were ignorant and unpatriotic, while counterprotests by Castillo’s supporters heightened the atmosphere of tension and suspense.
Peruvian scholars like Omar Coronel, a political scientist at the Catholic University, and Rodrigo Montoya, an emeritus professor of anthropology at San Marcos University, have argued that brutal repression radicalized the movement. But they also stress that the first wave of protests was catalyzed by the alliance between Boluarte and Congress. According to Coronel, Castillo supporters saw this alliance as an extension of the old Fujimorista coalition that had sought to invalidate the 2021 election.8 Montoya also believes that the protests were initially motivated by outrage over Boluarte’s alliance with the right-wing members of Congress who had sought to annul the election result in 2021. The massacres in Andahuaylas, Ayacucho and Juliaca transformed the protests into a significant rebellion demanding a new constitutional order.9
Does Peru need a new constitution?
One of the paradoxes of the current crisis is that it has placed the idea of a constituent assembly on the agenda like never before. Castillo promised a constituent assembly to rewrite Peru’s 1993 constitution, which was adopted after Fujimori’s 1992 self-coup. The constitution enshrined a market-oriented approach to economic policy that constrains the role of the state in the economy, which is one of the reasons for Peru’s stability in macroeconomic policy. Polls showed that public opinion was divided between those favouring moderate constitutional reforms and those wanting an entirely new constitution.10
In one of his better moments in office, Castillo had proposed a Chilean-style strategy of changing the constitution.11 First there would be a modification of the 1993 constitution to allow a referendum to convene a constituent assembly. Second, assuming a favorable referendum result, a constituent assembly would be elected in which independents and Indigenous peoples would play a role. The sitting Congress would not be dissolved and would continue to legislate. Finally, the new magna carta would be submitted to a referendum for ratification. Congress peremptorily archived the proposal, but the current crisis may have revived the demand for a new constitution.
It is far from clear that a new constitution would solve Peru’s most urgent problems, and indeed it could make them worse. A radical new constitution – like the one that was rejected in Chile last September – would almost certainly not be accepted. Moreover, there is often a temptation to use the constitution to solve problems that have to be addressed by other means. For example, in a referendum in 2018 Peruvian voters unwisely approved a proposal to end reelection of members of Congress. This measure, motivated by frustration over corruption and self-dealing in Congress, helps explain the refusal of Congress to accelerate the electoral timetable. Nevertheless, with the right leadership, a well-designed, competently led and participatory process of constitutional change could be one way to rebuild a democratic consensus. Leadership, however, is conspicuously lacking.
Politics and leadership
Peru has a long history of electing political outsiders – politicians with little or no prior experience in public office. This can be explained by pervasive and persistent disenchantment with politics and politicians among voters, but it has a cost. It means people who are not only inexperienced but also unfit for public office get elected. It is a high-stakes gamble when politicians are chosen without a track record by which the electorate can assess their competence and character – the lack of both of which was reflected in Castillo’s futile effort to escape impeachment by Congress.
In the first place, his attempted self-coup was incredibly ill-prepared. The idea that a president might decide on an autogolpe and attempt to implement it on the same day without the backing of the armed forces is naive beyond belief. Whatever groundswell of support Castillo might have enjoyed was not given the opportunity to materialize before he was detained. In the second place, autogolpes only work when a president’s actions enjoy widespread support because they seem justifiable. Fujimori was able to win public support because he justified his actions in terms of an urgent public need to strengthen the counterinsurgency effort. I have argued elsewhere that the justifications Fujimori offered for the 1992 autogolpe were weak, but they were nevertheless accepted by much of the public.12
The strongest cards in Castillo’s hand were that he was elected in a free and fair election and that, for all his faults, his opponents were in every respect worse. His removal on grounds of corruption would have been a violation of the constitution which he could have fought. Indeed, it was for precisely this reason that he may have had the votes to survive the impeachment process. Members of Congress would have set a terrible precedent had they removed a sitting president on the basis of unproven allegations of corruption. Castillo handed them a gift, however, by flagrantly violating the constitution himself.
Castillo’s actions exhibited not only stunning ineptitude but also an appalling lack of moral character and judgement. He placed his own interests above those of the constitutional order and the democratic regime. Surrounded by mediocre advisers, lacking an understanding of the powers of the presidency and its limitations and willing to act unilaterally and without regard even for his own allies, Castillo proved to be reckless, egocentric and opportunistic. In politics, such qualities can have tragic consequences.
Reckless opportunism, myopic self-interest and corruption also characterize Congress, which has not even seen fit to agree to early elections as a way of diffusing the crisis and recovering legitimacy for Peru’s precarious and much-degraded democracy. The ruling faction considers itself victorious and would prefer that dissent be handled with force while its members fully enjoy the perks of office for the remainder of their terms. When elections do come, however, the rebellion of 2022–23 will be felt at the polls. We may look back on the protests as marking the beginning of a process of democratic and constitutional change.