Ppolitical turmoil is part of the image of Latin America, even if it often doesn’t match reality. But the term is hardly an accurate description of Pedro Castillo’s government in Peru. In just 14 months in office, Mr Castillo managed to get 72 ministers through. The latest appointment on Sept. 23 is his fourth defense minister this year. Five of his appointments were condemned by Congress. Many others were clearly unqualified, or embroiled in scandals ranging from corruption allegations to wife-beating. Most worrying of all, some people seem to have been fired by the president for trying to do their jobs. This applies to several interior ministers.
Mr. Castillo is an unexpected president with no political experience and, clearly, no talent for the job. He got it because many Peruvians couldn’t bring themselves to vote for his opponent Keiko Fujimori, a conservative accused of corruption (which she denies). As a candidate for the far-left party, he was a rural teacher and union activist who claimed to represent poor Peruvians. During his tenure, he achieved almost nothing. At the heart of his government are his extended family and colleagues from his native Chota province in northern Peru. The prosecutor’s office has opened six investigations into Mr. Castillo and his family, three of which involve public contracts. He denies wrongdoing. A daughter is in custody and a nephew is at large.
The malaise of the Peruvian polity extends far beyond the presidency. The 130-member Congress represents about 16 parties or groups and two attempts to impeach the president failed, while the president still has the support of a dissenting minority. More than 40 belonged to nominally left-wing parties. Some conservatives are happy to have a weak government that shares their interest in deregulating private universities and informal transport companies, or fighting feminism. Many lawmakers worry that removing Mr. Castillo will spark public demands for a new general election. Political scientist Alberto Vergara said they focused on immediate interests. “Some want to keep a paycheck they’ll never earn elsewhere, and some want to demand bribes, or place people in government service.” Another impeachment petition is underway. Independent lawmaker Edouard Málaga, who drafted the motion, estimates he has secured about 80 of the 87 votes needed. “The intent is that the president will not cause further damage to the country,” he said. But many doubt he will succeed.
Local elections on October 2 are unlikely to improve the situation. They should matter: mayors and local governors control two-thirds of public investment. With political parties almost irrelevant, most victors will be independent local figures. More than 600 cases involved criminal court cases. No wonder a survey by pollster Ipsos, released three weeks before the election, found that four in five people were undecided on whom to vote for.
Even by contemporary Latin American standards, the depravity of Peruvian politics is extreme. Keiko’s father, Alberto Fujimori, came to power as a dictator in the 1990s and set out to weaken the party. In a country where more than 70 percent of workers work in the informal economy and less than 5 percent are in unions, society has become disorganized. The latest rule changes for bar associations re-election to Congress or local government have made it harder to pursue a career in politics. “There is not only a lack of political parties, but also a lack of politicians,” Mr Vergara said.
The volatility pattern has been exacerbated by Mr. Castillo’s presidency. In the past five years, there have been four presidents and two congresses. In the past, this type of political impasse would prompt the military to step in. Those days seem to be gone forever in Latin America. One candidate to fill the vacuum is Antauro Humala, a former army officer with fascist views. He was released in August after 17 years in prison for leading an uprising that left six dead. He appealed to those disaffected by the rule of the country in the capital Lima (as did Mr Castillo). But he may struggle to find wider support.
Peru is unstable but surprisingly stable. Some analysts are starting to think Mr Castillo is unlikely to complete his five-year term. But uncertainty is undermining investment and economic growth. Capricious governments are undermining administrative efficiency. Mr Malaga is right to say the president is damaging the country. The thing is, getting rid of him doesn’t necessarily end the damage or volatility.■
Read more from our Latin America columnist Bello:
Nayib Bukele wants term limits abolished in El Salvador (September 22)
Colombia’s new president courts Venezuela’s tyrant (September 15)
Questions surrounding shooting of Argentine vice president (September 8)