Peruvian Congress approves bill to advance general elections as anti-coup protests intensify

According to Peru’s National Human Rights Coordinator, in the past 15 days of anti-coup protests, 27 protesters have died as a result of violent repression by security forces

December 23, 2022 by Tanya Wadhwa
Peruvians have been protesting since December 7, demanding the release and reinstatement of President Pedro Castillo, the closure of the Congress, new elections and a new constitution through a Constituent Assembly (Photo: Peoples Dispatch)

On Tuesday, December 20, Peru’s Congress, with 93 votes in favor, 30 against, and one abstention, approved a bill to advance general elections to April 2024, and to conclude the presidential and legislative terms in July of the same year. The elections were originally scheduled for April 2026.

As it is a constitutional reform, in order to take effect, the bill must be ratified in a second vote in the coming months with at least 87 votes. This is the second time the Congress has voted on an early election proposal. Last week, on December 16, legislators rejected a bill that called for holding general elections in December 2023.

The decision to change the electoral calendar came following the call for further intensification of nationwide protests demanding the release and reinstatement of ousted left-wing President Pedro Castillo, the resignation of the de facto President Dina Boluarte, the dissolution of the right-wing dominated unicameral Congress, fresh parliamentary elections, and the establishment of a Constituent Assembly to change the country’s 1993 Constitution. On Monday, December 19, several Indigenous, peasant, and social movements from Apurímac, Arequipa, Ayacucho, and Puno regions, among others, called on the citizens to strengthen strikes and reinforce roadblocks across the country, beginning December 20.

The legislators of the left-wing Free Peru party, which sponsored Castillo’s presidential candidacy in 2021, voted against the bill and insisted on their demand to call for Constituent Assembly elections alongside the next general elections. In the vote last week, the Free Peru legislators abstained from voting, putting forth this demand.

According to an opinion poll released on December 18 and conducted by the polling agency IPSOS Peru, 85% of citizens are in favor of bringing general elections forward and 62% are in favor of political reform before the next elections to resolve the long-standing socio-political crisis in the country.

Coup, resistance, repression

Castillo, a 53-year-old former rural school teacher and union leader, was overthrown in a legislative coup carried out by the right-wing opposition majority Congress on December 7, after he tried to dissolve Congress and rule by decree. He was swiftly arrested following his dismissal for allegedly “breaching constitutional order.” On December 12, the Congress, controlled by Peru’s traditional political elites who have felt threatened since his electoral victory, approved a bill to deprive Castillo of his presidential immunity, enabling the Prosecutor’s Office to criminally prosecute him. On December 15, the Peruvian judiciary accepted the Prosecutor’s Office’s request for the extension of Castillo’s preventive detention to 18 months.

Castillo’s forcible removal and illegal arrest brought tens of thousands of citizens, mostly those from the long-neglected countryside of Peru who feel deeply represented by Castillo, into the streets demanding structural changes to the country’s political system. For the past two weeks, since December 7, Indigenous and peasant communities, popular movements, social organizations, student associations, and trade unions have been organizing demonstrations and roadblocks and occupying local airports in different parts of the country.

The Boluarte government has responded to this social uprising with a strong security clampdown, including the declaration of a state of emergency at the national level and deployment of armed soldiers and police officials. According to Peru’s National Human Rights Coordinator (CNDDHH), in the past 15 days of anti-coup protests, 27 protesters have died as a result of violent repression by public security forces, in addition to 60 serious hospitalizations and 113 arbitrary arrests.

The de facto government’s repressive policies have been condemned by numerous political and social leaders as well as national and international human rights organizations.

On December 20, a delegation from the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) arrived in the capital Lima to meet with authorities and human rights organizations as part of a fact-finding mission on the volatile political situation.

Boluarte’s first cabinet reshuffle

The growing popular dissatisfaction with her government forced Boluarte to reshuffle her ministerial cabinet just 11 days after its inauguration and make five changes. On Wednesday, December 22, Boluarte swore in her former Defense Minister Luis Alberto Otárola as the new Prime Minister and the head of her Council of Ministers.

On December 19, Boluarte had announced that she would reshuffle the cabinet and dismiss Prosecutor Pedro Miguel Angulo from the position of prime minister, arguing that she was looking for someone who not only has institutional knowledge but is also “a little more political to be able to face social protests.”

Boluarte appointed Army General Jorge Luis Chávez as her new Defense Minister, who also led this ministry during the administration of former President Martin Vizcarra (2018–2020).

Boluarte also appointed Óscar Manuel Becerra as the new Education Minister and Leslie Urteaga Peña as the new Culture Minister, replacing Patricia Correa and Jair Pérez, respectively, who resigned from their positions on December 16, following the massacre of seven protesters in Ayacucho at the hands of security forces the day before.

Boluarte also swore in Víctor Rojas Herrera as the new Interior Minister, replacing César Cervantes.

Vladimir Cerrón, progressive leader and the founder of the Free Peru party, rejected Otárola’s appointment as the new Prime Minister. “With changes in the Interior and Defense portfolios, they will not be able to evade responsibility for murders in protests, the ministers will be investigated. Otárola’s designation as PM ratifies the government’s heavy hand and the conflicts will continue until there is a new social contract,” tweeted Cerrón.

Verónika Mendoza, former presidential candidate for the progressive New Peru movement, also criticized Boluarte’s new cabinet. “Congress and the government mock the mobilizations throughout the country and the death of 27 Peruvians. Yesterday Congress decided to stay until July 2024. Today Ms. Boluarte appointed as Prime Minister the person directly responsible for the militarization and deaths. Then Dina Boluarte says that she ‘doesn’t understand’ why people mobilize. Another year and a half with this government and this Congress? Impossible. The crisis would only deepen,” Mendoza wrote on Twitter.

Boluarte’s conflict with Mexico

The Boluarte administration’s handling of the protests has also been criticized by the heads of state of several Latin American countries.

Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador is among those who have explicitly expressed support for Castillo, and repeatedly called on Peruvian authorities “to respect human rights and not to repress the people.”

On December 20, President López Obrador, during his morning press conference, said that “the doors of Mexico are open for Pedro Castillo, his family, and all those who feel harassed or persecuted in Peru.”

Hours later, Mexican Foreign Minister Marcelo Ebrard announced that the Mexican government had granted asylum to Castillo’s wife Lilia Paredes and their two minor children, who had sought refuge at Mexico’s embassy in Lima.

Following this, the Boluarte government expelled Mexican Ambassador Pablo Monroy Conesa, declaring him a “persona non grata” and giving him 72 hours to leave the country, in protest against what the administration said was Mexico’s “repeated” and “unacceptable interference” in Peru’s internal affairs.

Mexican Foreign Minister Ebrard described the decision of the Peruvian government as “unfounded and reprehensible.” Later, through a statement, the Foreign Ministry instructed Monroy Conesa to return to Mexico “in order to protect his safety and physical integrity.”

On December 22, Monroy Conesa, accompanied by Castillo’s wife Lilia Paredes and her son and daughter, arrived in Mexico, where they will reside as political refugees.

Meanwhile, President López Obrador said that Mexico is determined to maintain diplomatic relations with Peru, “because we need to maintain our embassy to provide protection to Mexicans who reside, work, and live in Peru, among other reasons.”