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Peru’s Crisis Is Proof of Latin America’s Obsolete Presidentialism

Crisis de Perú, prueba del presidencialismo obsoleto en Latinoamérica, EFE

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When Peruvian President Pedro Castillo decided to dissolve Congress, create a government of national emergency, call for elections of Congress with constituent power, govern by decree, declared a curfew and the reorganization of the judicial system, he was proclaiming himself dictator by assuming all the power of the State, a situation that led to his dismissal, arrest, prosecution and succession by his VP Dina Boluarte. Six presidents in four years show Peru’s governance crisis and prove that presidentialism as a system is obsolete in Latin America.

On December 7, 2022, the constitutional president of Peru proclaimed himself dictator hours before a session of Congress scheduled to discuss his vacancy. The response of the Peruvian institutions is evidence of the strength of democracy. The Congress dismissed the president who had publicly and flagrantly incurred in violation of Article 45 of the Political Constitution which states: “The power of the State emanates from the people, those who exercise it do so with the limitations and responsibilities established by the Constitution and the laws. No person, organization, Armed Forces, National Police, or sector of the population may arrogate to themselves the exercise of such power. To do so constitutes rebellion or sedition.”

Pedro Castillo’s arguments in his 9.57-minute speech in which he disrupted democracy are that “the discredited congressional majority” would not let him govern for the good of the people, that the “mercenary, corrupt and cynical press” falsely harasses him, that “the Congress has destroyed the rule of law” and installed a “congressional dictatorship with the current Constitutional Tribunal,” for which he decided to “establish a government of exception.”

Castillo became President obtaining 18.92% of the vote in the first round with a 70.05% voter turnout, that is, a net of 13.25% of the registered voters in a group of 20 presidential candidates. In the second round, he obtained 50.13 %, but since members of Congress are elected on the first ballot he only had 37 seats in Congress or 28.46 % of the congressional vote. A president with the first minority of votes, 13.25 % at the national level, before a Congress composed of parliamentarians from 9 political fronts that obtained representation.

The proliferation of political parties, fronts and organizations that can participate in the elections has brought with it in Latin America the destruction of the basis of the presidential system in which the legitimacy of the president lies in the direct popular vote, but based on the separation and independence of powers he cannot govern without the coordination with the Legislative Power and under the control of the Judicial Power. With 20 candidates in the first round and with a winner with less than 14% of support, as in the case of the elections of Peru 2021, it is impossible to expect the president to have governability because the second round is only a forced tie-breaker.

The Peruvian case has been replicated throughout most of Latin America and is a pretext for the proliferation of dictatorships. In some cases, such as in the elections of Ecuador in which the current president Laso obtained 27.91 % in the first round, in the elections of Chile the current president Boric obtained 25.83 % of votes in the first round, in the elections of Colombia the current president Petro obtained 40.34 % of votes with a participation of 54.98 % of the registered voters. And in other cases, such as Nicaragua in 2006, Daniel Ortega was elected in the first round with 38% of votes because they had previously reduced the percentage of votes needed to win the first round to 35%.  

Presidentialism in Latin America is turning the candidate who obtains the first minority into the president of the country, which in the system is not enough to have governability. They result in minority presidents and this brings instability and bad government or the temptation to become dictators concentrating all powers or changing them at will -with constituent assemblies and referendums- to control them, as has already happened in Venezuela, Bolivia, Nicaragua, in Ecuador with Correa and in the recent frustrated attempt of Castillo in Peru.

Today, with dozens of political parties and candidates, low and fractioned votes, and without tradition or possibility of agreements between the president elected by a minority with also fractioned oppositions that control the legislative branch, presidentialism is a sure recipe for ungovernability, that is, inability to govern. This scenario is a guarantee of conflicts and crises as Peru is proving since 2018 to date, in 4 years it already had 6 presidents of the republic and threatens to have more because it lacks the mechanisms to modify this reality.

In the current situation, Dina Boluarte should be considered a transitional president and lead a great national agreement to take Peru to a reform that advances to a full parliamentary system or establishes conditions for presidentialism to work. The time is coming for parliamentarism to strengthen democracy in Latin America.

This article is part of an agreement between El American and the Interamerican Institute for Democracy.

Carlos Sánchez Berzain es abogado, politólogo, máster en ciencia política y sociología. Catedrático. Estadista perseguido y exiliado político. Director del Interamerican Institute for Democracy // Carlos Sánchez Berzain is a lawyer, political scientist, with a master's degree in political science and sociology. Professor. Persecuted statesman and political exile. Director of the Interamerican Institute for Democracy.