With the COVID-19 pandemic and the ongoing US presidential transition grabbing daily headlines, it can be difficult for the American audience to focus on the political events of any other country. However, there are key lessons to be learned from countries like Peru, which has faced momentous democratic turmoil in recent weeks.
Peru has had three different presidents in office during the last two weeks alone, amid ongoing protests following the impeachment and resignation of President Martin Vizcarra. These protests, in which two people were killed, were successful in forcing the interim president and previous head of Congress, Manuel Merino, to resign. He was then replaced by the current president, Francisco Sagasti. Sagasti will remain interim president until an election in April, when a new president will be chosen in the general election.
The success of the recent protests is a case in which widespread demonstrations and public opinion was able to enact a change in favor of democratic norms and the separation of powers, staving off some elements of democratic erosion for the immediate future. Peru has a long history with democratic erosion, which is the process by which the features of democracy can slowly deteriorate over time. The recent events in Peru may provide a glimmer of hope in the face of a process that often seems unstoppable. Ex-President Merino’s forced resignation at the hands of the public shows that public opinion which favors maintaining democratic norms can, in fact, play a role in changing the trajectory of the process democratic erosion in a country.
Martin Vizcarra was a widely popular president, with his approval ratings boosted even higher this year by his response to the COVID-19 pandemic, which had a particularly positive public reception. During his two years in office, which began when another president, Pedro Pablo Kuczynski, resigned due to allegations of corruption, Vizcarra and his anti-corruption measures faced an extremely hostile Congress. The culmination of this dynamic resulted in his impeachment, based on weakly-substantiated corruption charges which consisted of the testimony of only two witnesses; these charges would likely not hold up in a court of law.
The protests arose with the highly political nature of Vizcarra’s impeachment in the background. The protests were not just motivated by just Vizcarra’s popularity; according to Denisse Rodriguez-Olivari, a political scientist and expert in Peruvian politics, the protests were driven by the public’s realization that this political impeachment went against democratic norms.
Political polarization is a core feature of democratic erosion . The polarization of a populace can lead to the prioritization of partisan political goals over the democratic process; as the other side becomes more distant in terms of policy, instituting one’s own policy preferences can seem more important. This connection is important because in this instance, Peruvian citizens were able to successfully place the democratic system over parties’ political goals.
The situation in Peru could change in any number of ways in the upcoming months, with the April election fast approaching and the COVID-19 pandemic remaining unpredictable. For this reason, it remains to be seen whether the recent overturn of an anti-democratic political impeachment will result in a stronger democratic system in the long run for Peru. The process of democratic erosion is a notoriously difficult problem to remedy, but the success of the popular demonstrations in defense of Peruvian democracy suggests that it can be combated in a meaningful way. As we’ve seen in recent weeks in Peru, as long as a public culture that prioritizes the democratic process remains in place, political moves that threaten democracy can be reversed.
 Levitsky, Steven & Ziblatt, Daniel. How Democracies Die, 2018, chapter 1, page 9.