In June 2021, Pedro Castillo, a self proclaimed leftist populist, was elected as the president of Peru. With his victory over Keiko Fujimori a right wing populist only coming by 40,000 votes it signifies the state of their democracy. The presence of two strong populist parties on both sides also show the polarization of Peru. Peru’s democratic institutions have long been unstable, with most recently its congress being dissolved and then reinstated in 2019 and 2020. Controversy and instability continued at the beginning of Castillo’s presidency with claims of voter fraud brought about by the opposition party. Fujimori was unable to back these claims resulting in Castillo entering office in July. In his short time in office he has already had to overcome two impeachments in an 8 month span with allegations of corruption and incompetence. Both these attempts to remove Castillo, were stopped by Castillo’s party and labeled as a right wing coup. This would not be the end of instability throughout Peru. Sanctions put on Russia because of their actions in Ukraine have hindered Peru’s fragile economy. The rising price of fertilizer and fuel has triggered protests, with Castillo responding with curfews which would be removed shortly after. This short period of Castillo’s presidency signifies the condition of democracy in Peru. However, with Castillo and the executive branch’s proposal of a referendum to reform the constitution through a constituent assembly, Peru’s democracy is up in the air once again.
Castillo’s proposed referendum could have a monumental impact on the future of democracy in Peru. The referendum aims to put the question, “Do you approve the convening of a Constituent Assembly to draft a new Political Constitution?”, in front of voters in an upcoming municipal election. It is unclear what changes the convening of this constituent assembly would bring about. There is potential to prevent continued backsliding of democratic institutions through this reformation of the constitution but, this referendum could also lead to even more democratic erosion in Peru. Furthermore, this referendum must first pass through congress and gain enough support in an already extremely volatile and polarized government in order to bring about change. If this referendum were not passed it is apparent that Castillo’s presidency may not survive much longer due to the current political climate in Peru.
I first want to focus on how this referendum may save Peru from democratic backsliding by comparing it to a similar referendum that passed in the neighboring country of Chile. The passing of the Chilean referendum allowed citizens to select who they wanted to draft their new constitution, resulting in rejection of the mainstream political parties in favor of independents and newcomers from left-wing political parties and social movements. This introduction of new representatives in this government reformation process, allows for groups who were gatekeepers from mainstream politics to have better representation. Although the new constitution has not been completed, Chile’s referendum seems to be helping strengthen democracy. If Peru’s referendum could be approved, perhaps the effects of the reformation of the constitution could help more citizen’s gain adequate representation and improve democratic institutions like the proposed Chilean referendum is on the track of doing.
However, due to the political climate and extreme polarization of Peru, a referendum may be both highly unpredictable in its actual results and the potential outcomes of the prevailing decision. If this referendum were to pass it is unclear who would be elected to this constituent assembly to draft this new constitution. Could Castillo and his party promote leftist ideals to strengthen democracy? Could Castillo hinder democracy? Could Fujimori and her right wing populist party influence the referendum to promote authoritarianism in Peru? These are all questions to ask when trying to understand the potential effects of this referendum on democracy. One thing is for sure, democracy in Peru is still up in the air.