Peru’s interim president Francisco Sagasti finds himself surrounded by peril – a fragmented congress in which half the legislators are under investigation for alleged crimes, a series of deadly anti-government protests, a surge in COVID-19 cases and deaths, a staggering economic contraction, and a crisis of Peruvian democracy itself.
The former academic is Peru’s third president in a week, having been sworn in as part of an effort to stabilize the country amidst widespread unrest. The political crisis was initiated when former president Martín Vizcarra was ousted by Congress on November 9, a move regarded by many Peruvians as a congressional coup and an illegal power grab. Vizcarra convened an anti-graft agenda that involved referendums on constitutional reform. To achieve his policy goals, Vizcarra dissolved the highly-fragmented Congress, yet the new legislative body that emerged was equally polarized and their relationship became untenable. The tensions and disintegration in Congress caused by Vizcarra’s actions around his popular anti-corruption reforms ultimately resulted in impeachement and a criminal corruption trial. As President of the Congress, Manuel Merino assumed power, triggering protests which claimed that legislators had staged a parliamentary coup. After just five days and with two young protesters shot dead, Merino stepped down, despite claiming that Congress acted within the law when he was sworn into office. The political crisis that has fallen in Sagasti’s hands comes as Peru is facing dire public health and economic emergencies, with the IMF expecting the country’s gross domestic product to decline by 14% this year.
But most of all, the recent compounding crises in Peru are destabilizing the country’s democracy. The dysfunctional institutionalized party system has kept Peruvian democracy in a cycle of instability, constitutional crises have stalled attempts at meaningful policy, and the inability to curb a myriad of scandals has led to popular discontent with the political establishment. If history is an indicator of what is to come, it is clear the survival of Peruvian democracy is threatened. It is therefore helpful, if disconcerting, to recall the context of Peru’s historical experience with democratic erosion. When Alberto Fujimori ascended to the presidency in 1990, Peru was facing a moment of acute crisis. The economy had collapsed due to hyperinflation and Peruvians were disgusted with established parties. As a party outsider, Fujimori became an attractive counterpoint to the scandal-ridden and defective political establishment. In fact, after he had won the presidency, Fujimori was able to justify his presidential coup, dissolving of congress, and rewriting of the constitution as a “necessary evil,” and because of discontent with what came before him, “most Peruvians agreed.” The conditions that allowed for Fujimori to pursue anti-democratic measures, and more so for those actions to be widely supported, have once again arisen in Peru. Peruvian law professor Alonso Gurmendi Dunkelberg claims this moment is the “most serious democratic…crisis we have seen since Fujimori.” Facing its worst constitutional crisis in two decades, massive protests unleashed by Congress’ ousting of a popular president, and severe economic prospects, the moment is ripe for would-be autocrats to capture and consolidate power.
Peru’s prospects to sustain democracy become even more concerning when understood through the failure its institutions to achieve their most basic ends. It is broadly understood that undermining or bulldozing democratic institutions is a feature democratic erosion. But what can democratic actors do when these institutions undermined themselves through their own historical record? Such is the current dilemma facing President Sagasti. As Ozan Varol argues, one way in which leaders navigate out of this environment is to aggrandize their position against such institutions, using “legal mechanisms that exist in regimes with favorable democratic credentials for anti-democratic ends.” The crisis in Peru centers precisely on these legal mechanisms. Instantiations and sentiments in Peru express a total failure of its legal institutions, and more so of the failure of politicians to avoid being caught up in illegal scandals. In fact, the second most recent president, Manuel Merino, has become the seventh recent president to find himself in legal jeopardy. The problem lies not just in the fact that Peru’s legal framework is in shambles, it is also that so many leaders are found to be corrupt, and act in ways that are completely disconnected from expressed popular needs. The convergence of these failures, along with drastic economic crises and mass civil unrest, bring about prime conditions for a would-be autocrat to rise to power. On the one hand, the ongoing protests send a power message to Congress against parliamentary coups and illegal power grabs. On the other hand, President Sagasti must contend with a congress that has shown itself to disregard democratic procedures and is willing to aggrandize itself independent of the executive.
 Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt, How Democracies Die (New York: Crown Publishing Group, 2018), p. 72.
 Ibid, p. 94, 75.
 Ozan O. Varol, “Stealth Authoritarianism,” Iowa Law Review, vol. 100, p. 1684.