PERU: ‘Constitutional debate has taken on new relevance as a result of the protests’

Rafael BarrioCIVICUS speaks about recent protests in Peru with Rafael Barrio de Mendoza, a researcher on processes of territorial transformation from Grupo Propuesta Ciudadana, a consortium of 10 civil society organisations with a presence in 16 regions of Peru. Propuesta Ciudadana seeks to contribute to the formulation of policy proposals for an inclusive state and the adequate management of public resources. It promotes a vision of territorial governance that starts with the identification of and respect for diversity and in which democratic development is a key component.

What triggered the protests that broke out in Peru in November 2020?

The immediate cause was the decision by a parliamentary majority to force out President Martín Vizcarra, using a mechanism that had been scarcely used in the past and whose content and process involve a wide margin of discretion. The publication of accusations against Vizcarra was carried out in a sequence that proved to be planned, and a feeling prevailed that they were instrumentalised by the so-called ‘vacating coalition’. Although there is some controversy regarding the quality of the evidence brought forward about the crimes Vizcarra is accused of, allegedly committed during his term as governor of the Moquegua region five years ago, a consensus formed in public opinion that these accusations could have been credibly pursued after the end of his presidential term, given that general elections had already been called for April 2021.

But from a more structural point of view, the political crisis was the expression of the maturing of a crisis of political representation, which made it apparent that there were few organic links between politicians and citizens’ sensibilities and that we have a precarious and cartelised system of political representation, in which a myriad of illegal, informal and oligopolistic interests have resisted successive generations of reforms – educational, judicial, fiscal and political, among others – aimed at regulating them. Revelations of corruption involving much of the political establishment, including the Lava Jato/Odebrecht case and the White Collars case, which uncovered a widespread network of corruption within the judicial system, resulted in a consensus that the management of public affairs had irremediably deteriorated. At the same time, the relative effectiveness of the fiscal measures taken against the political leaders involved in these cases fuelled the prospect of a cleansing of the political class and the possibility of cultivating a transition to a better system of representation. To a certain extent, the populist link that Vizcarra established with this sensitivity – sealed with the constitutional dissolution of the previous Congress, in which former President Alberto Fujimori’s party had a majority – was the factor that sustained his government, which lacked parliamentary, business, media, or trade union support. Vizcarra’s removal was experienced as the comeback of a constellation of interests that had experienced a setback as a consequence of prosecutors’ work and recent education, political and judicial reforms.

How would you describe the institutional conflict that resulted in the removal and replacement of the president?

Institutional conflict arose due to the precarious character of a political system that included a new Congress with multiple caucuses but none of them of the president’s party and a president who enjoyed popular support but lacked institutional backing, and whose legitimacy was therefore sustained on his versatile management of public debate through a combination of political gestures, the recruitment of competent technicians in key positions and a calculated exercise of antagonism with Congress on key issues such as education, political and judicial reforms.

The majority coalition in Congress broadly took up the agenda and represented the interests of the former so-called ‘Fujiaprist’ majority – described in reference to the tacit alliance between the Aprista party and the political movement founded by former President Fujimori – on top of which it added new populist demands that put at risk the budgetary and macroeconomic management that enjoyed technocratic consensus. In this context, certain people who had survived the dissolution of the previous Congress managed to reposition themselves in the new one and conduct, alongside some media outlets, a campaign seeking to undermine Vizcarra’s popularity by levelling accusations of corruption in unclear cases. These were the dynamics that fed the institutional conflict.

For its part, civil society provided a unified response to the president’s removal and the new regime that resulted from it. Their response ranged from expressing concern and demanding accountability to openly condemning the establishment of the new administration. The mass protests and repression they faced fuelled this shift in most of civil society. Many civil society organisations played an active role in framing the conflict, producing a narrative for international audiences and putting pressure on the state actors with whom they interact.

Who mobilised, and what did they demand?

At first, demonstrators protested against the removal of President Vizcarra and against the inauguration of the president of Congress, Manuel Merino, as the new president. A subsequent survey by Ipsos showed that just over three quarters of the population agreed with the protest against President Vizcarra’s removal and that at least two million people mobilised in one way or another or took an active part in the protests.

The demonstrations were led mostly by young people, between 16 and 30 years old, who did most of the organising and produced the protest’s repertoires and tactics. The generalised mood of weariness was embodied by the so-called ‘bicentennial generation’, born after the end of the Fujimori regime, who are digital natives and, for the most part, disaffected with conventional politics. This is also a mesocratic generation – both in the traditional segments of the middle class and in the popular sectors – that is embedded in virtual communities mediated by digital platforms. This partly explains the speed with which organisational forms emerged that were efficient enough to produce repertoires, coordinate actions, document protests and shift public opinion. The mediation of social media and the use of micro money transfer applications led to a decentralised organisation of the protests, with multiple demonstrations taking place in different locations, a variety of converging calls and a diversity of repertoires and channels for the rapid transfer of resources.

The youth-led mobilisation was fed by a middle class willing to assume the cost of demonstrating. Around this nucleus coalesced, both sociologically and territorially, other segments of the population, more or less used to conventional protest strategies or simply distant from all public participation.

The protests began on 9 November, followed by daily demonstrations, and reached their peak on 14 November, when the Second National March took place. The so-called 14N mass mobilisation was fuelled by the sudden awakening of a fed-up feeling that ran through society and was particularly intense among young people. Hence its exceptional character in terms of its scope, magnitude, level of organisation and the rapid adoption of a non-partisan citizen identity, which could only be partly explained by the existing support for Vizcarra, as it far exceeded it.

14N culminated with the death of two young protesters who were hit by lead bullets. Merino had taken over on 10 November and formed a radically conservative government. The nature of his cabinet quickly revealed itself through the authorisation of severe repression of the protest, particularly in the capital, Lima. After the first days of police violence, the president of the Council of Ministers congratulated and guaranteed protection to the police squads involved. The deaths that took place on 14N resulted in overwhelming citizen pressure, triggering a cascade of disaffection among the few political supporters sustaining the regime. As a result, by midday on 15 November Merino had resigned.

The space generated by the mobilisation was populated by a number of heterogeneous demands, ranging from the reinstatement of Vizcarra to the demand for constitutional change to pave the way out of neoliberalism, including citizen-based proposals focused on the defence of democracy, the continuity of reforms, the injustice of the repression, and the insensitivity of the political class regarding the pandemic health emergency. Ferment for these demands continues to exist and it remains to be seen how they end up taking shape in the electoral scenario of 2021.

 

How did these protests differ from others in the past? Were there any changes related to the context of the pandemic?

In previous urban mobilisations, the coordination mechanisms provided by social media had already been tested, but these demonstrations had been led by conventional groups, such as social movements, political parties and trade unions. On this occasion, new activist groups were formed, including to deactivate teargas projectiles and to provide medical relief, which are similar to mobilisation techniques tested in other scenarios, such as the Hong Kong protests and the Black Lives Matter protests in the USA. This speaks of the emergence of global protest learning spaces.

In part, it was the health emergency that conditioned the composition of the protests, which were mostly made up of young people, while also encouraging the dissemination of new repertoires, such as ‘cacerolazos’ (pot banging), ‘bocinazos’ (horn blowing) and digital activism among those more reluctant to take to the streets. At the same time, the massive character of the protests can be explained by the fact that health indicators at the time suggested the end of the first wave of COVID-19 infections, and by the fact that the Black Lives Matter marches had not been linked to any relevant outbreaks, which encouraged a sense of safety among protesters.

Why did protesters demand constitutional reform, and what kind of constitutional reform do they want?

Proposals of constitutional change were among the demands of the mobilisation, but they were not its main demands. They did however gain new impetus in public debate. The history of these demands can be traced in two ways. Constitutional change through a constituent assembly has been one of the key demands of the left since the end of the Fujimori regime, which ruled from 1990 to 2001. Right after its fall, a congress was convened with a constituent mandate, but it was unable to produce a new constitution; since then this aspiration has come to live in the progressive camp, while it has lost popularity among more moderate and right-wing groups. The left often presents the mythical 1979 Constitution as an alternative, proposes new texts inspired by the Bolivian and Ecuadorian processes, and points to the illegitimate character of the current constitution, born after a coup d’état. The sustained economic growth of the post-Fujimori decades and a number of reforms of some constitutional mechanisms conferred legitimacy on the constitution, but many of the institutions and principles it enshrines have been rendered obsolete by the sociological and economic changes they helped bring about.

The second source of the demand for constitutional change is more organic and follows the realisation of the limits of the market model, apparent above all in the persistent lack of social protection, precarious and informal work and abuses by oligopoly interests in service provision, as well as in the crisis of the system of political representation. Vizcarra inaugurated a reformist stance in judicial and political matters, as well in the legal frameworks governing extractive industries and the pension system. He also continued with education reform. His reformist spirit – viewed by moderate groups as a path to a ‘responsible’ transition – was attacked by the political forces representing the sectors that had been affected by the reforms, creating a space in which reform aspirations can be promoted in the language of constitutional change.

Even so, this debate has taken on new relevance as a result of the 14N protests. However, the terms of the conversation and the content of the most significant changes are not yet clear, and neither is the existence of mature political actors capable of interpreting and implementing them. Danger lies in the possibility that, in a context of high uncertainty, the process may end up being defined by those whose motivations are foreign to the spirit of change.

Civic space in Peru is rated as ‘obstructed’ by the CIVICUS Monitor.
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