Helena Eatock, Peru: Who Owns Democracy?

During the late 1970s, in an increasingly diverse Latin America, a dramatic trend towards democracy began. Elected civilian leaders replaced military dictatorships in Ecuador in 1979, Peru in 1980, Bolivia in 1982, Argentina in 1983, and Brazil and Uruguay in 1985.[1] In Bolivia, Ecuador, and Colombia, citizens have been able to use this democracy as a space to press their demands at the level of the state. This supposed exercise of citizenship is, however, under constant assault from neoliberal state policies which turn citizens into clients or consumers of targeted social programs. Neoliberal policies such as privatisation, the elimination of tariffs on imports and the flexibilisation of the labour market and the removal of capital controls reduce state intervention in the economy to facilitate market functions. Such policies result in the transfer of power to international corporate actors  at the expense of domestic industrial development . The trappings of this form of neoliberalism reflect the most merciless form of capitalism; encouraging the deterioration of working and living conditions for large sectors of society and the declining ability of the state to respond to social demands. This leads to disillusionment with democracy, which was an issue prominent in Peru.

A neo-Gramscian critique of democracy provides an accurate optic through which we can view Peruvian democratisation. It suggests that democratic promotion is a transnational practice designed to secure and stabilise low-intensity democracy, or ‘polyarchy’, as the political counterpart to neoliberal globalisation. Some governments promoting democracy in modern Latin America have seldom aimed for long-term democratic political development, but rather supported regime change focusing on the repression of ideological enemies – socialist, popular, nationalist – and were wholly committed to neoliberal polyarchy.[2] This critique of the democratisation process can be transplanted almost wholesale to Peru, where leaders of government, in a nominally ‘civilised’ regime, have been unable to solve power struggles amongst the military and elites. In conjunction with Peru’s multi-faceted and multilingual character, we are justified in casting doubt upon the value of democratisation as it manifested there after 1980.

Peru was considered the “least likely” case for successful democratic consolidation in Latin America.[3] This was largely due to government instability, poor economic performance, the effects of what had essentially been a civil war 1980-2000, and the fact that Peru’s political parties were fragmented and poorly institutionalised.[4] Except for Bolivia, Peru is historically the least politically stable Latin American state. The country’s longest period of uninterrupted rule (constitutional or de facto) before 1980 was the Aristocratic Republic, which lasted for only nineteen years (1895-1914). During the twentieth century the common pattern was alternation between constitutional and de facto rule every five to twelve years. From independence in the early 1820s to 1995 approximately 60% of Peru’s presidents had a military background; these military leaders ruled for about 100 of these 170 years. Between 1945 and 1992, Peru’s government was civilian and constitutional almost 60% of the time, and a military regime 40% of the time.[5] This indicates a clear incapacity of political and military elites to establish legitimate authority in Peru, democratic or otherwise.

Unsurprisingly, popular resentment has always been tangible in Peru. Much of it is well entrenched in history stretching back to Peru’s colonial and post-colonial heritage. The entrance of Sendero Luminoso into the rural region of Ayacucho in 1980, with its aim of mobilising the Peruvian peasantry in a revolutionary overthrow of the state, was the last of a history of political movements in the Andes. Campesinos in Peru had been silenced at the behest of oligarchical community leaders: the gamonales, mestizos, or whites, who dominated the indigenous population usually in concert with local military caudillos.[6] This precipitated the weakening of opportunities for new elites in the sierra, changes in migration patterns, the failure of education policies and economic policies favouring imported food.[7] The decades leading up to 1980 also saw the evolution of complex indigenous ‘cholo’ identities, but the continuation of discriminatory attitudes sustained regional hierarchies.[8]

Thus, Peruvian ‘democracy’ marked its first years with a de facto exclusion of large sections of society from policy-making and voting, and therefore public life and participation. Political rebellions and the emergence of protest movements were inevitable, especially given the fact that the IMF dictated most of Peru’s economic decisions, which led to the implementation of highly divisive austerity measures felt most intensely by the lower classes. Rural-urban migration also altered the character of the country, widening economic disparities. The establishment and consolidation of democratic institutions was insufficient without widespread socio-economic change.

Sendero Luminoso was an extremist communist reaction to this deepening crisis of Peruvian democratic representation. The terrorist tactics employed and the brutal counterinsurgency that successive governments employed (contributing to the death toll of 69,280 people) also posed severe challenges to democratic governance by exacerbating the socioeconomic and ethnic divisions already discussed. Interestingly, the decision of Sendero to shun the electoral process and develop a popular war – ‘guerra popular’ – caused a rift in the traditional Left, made up of other revolutionary forces and more reformist thinkers in the legal Marxist parties. It created unsolvable political tensions proven by the election of Fujimori – a political neophyte who ran on an anti-neoliberal campaign – as president of Peru in 1990, which occurred as a result of further deterioration of the party system during the 1980s as well as the informalisation of the Peruvian economy, which left workers lacking labour contracts and regulated wages and conditions, and also deprived the state of economic resources, weakening its institutional and administrative presence in society.[9],[10]

In 2000, left and centre-left governments came to power across the region, but the governments of Alejandro Toledo and Alan García maintained and deepened the neoliberal system entrenched by Alberto Fujimori. Peru was an ally of the USA, and a bulwark against leftwing ‘populism’.[11] The USA tried to strengthen democratic institutions in Peru, contributing to new forms of inclusive neoliberal governance as they had done in Mexico 1994-2000, by supporting measures such as Toledo’s 2002 decentralisation plan. In this way, the USA was able to impose neoliberal policies across different geographical regions. Even progressive NGOs and charitable organisations were driven by the desires of American donors and so reinforced the hegemony of businesses and the private sector at the expense of grassroots organisations and the public sector.

Ollanta Humala showed the most promise when in November 2005 he launched the Partido Nacionalista Peruana, inspired by famous Peruvian Marxist José Carlos Mariátegui. Humala pledged for a re-regulation of the neoliberal economy and aligned himself with Evo Morales and Hugo Chavez by promoting a more traditional version of democracy that promoted participation via traditional tracks such as local councils, municipal governments and direct referendums.[12] Neoliberalism, however, remained resilient in the face of Humala in 2006, and he lost the election. The USA had funded his political opposition in the run-up to the election as well as offering his PNP party some concessions in an attempt to bring Humala under the neoliberal wing (as occurred in Bolivia when the US included the Movimiento al Socialismo into their programmes).

Humala ran for election again in 2011. During this campaign he altered some of his rhetoric and broke promises made in 2005, such as his promise to nationalise some industries. He distanced himself from Chávez and embraced more moderate ‘pink’ political models that won votes from the less repressed middle classes and city dwellers. Although he was not a candidate from the traditional elite by any stretch, he has adopted an approach similar to Toledo’s neoliberalism ‘with a human face’. Humala’s Presidency and his inability to escape the quagmire of neoliberal policies indicates that the transition to democracy has been severely hindered by the pernicious impact of neoliberalism at a global and national level, which successive governments have failed to prevent. Put simply, Peruvian democracy will be unable to serve the whole nation unless it functions without a neoliberal agenda, especially one that is implemented against the will of a people who did not vote for neoliberal politicians. However, it may take some time for Peru to develop economically to a point it can depart from neoliberalism stably, without agitating elites who could revolt against radical policies.

Since Sendero Luminoso, political instability and the potential for more widespread and popular social conflict has been apparent. Although the potential impact of terrorist organisations died down with the arrest of Abimael Guzmán and most of Sendero’s central committee in 1992, left-wing indigenous forces and repressed peoples suffering under local oligarchies continue to mobilise against the state, pushing for a break with the destructive neoliberal model. The legal Marxist left intend to create a single political party merger for the 2016 election, though rumours are also circulating that the Peruvian first lady, Nadine Heredia, may continue her husband’s legacy and run, as well as Keiki Fujimori, who leads the far-right People’s Power Party and remains a firm favourite in Metropolitan Lima, where the impact of neoliberalism is less powerful. The future for Peru is typically unpredictable.


Helena Eatock is a third-year History student at St Anne’s College, Oxford.


[1] Cynthia McClintock, ‘The Prospects for Democratic Consolidation in a “Least Likely” Case: Peru’, Comparative Politics, Vol. 21, No. 2 (Jan., 1989)

[2] Neil Burron, ‘Curbing ‘Anti-Systemic’ Tendencies in Peru: democracy promotion and the US contribution to producing neoliberal hegemony’, Third World Quarterly, Vol. 32, No.9 (Oct., 2011)

[3] Cynthia McClintock, ‘The Prospects for Democratic Consolidation’

[4] Ibid.,

[5] Cynthia McClintock, ‘Peru: Precarious Regimes, Authoritarian and Democratic’ in Larry Jay Diamond (ed.) Democracy in developing countries: Latin America, (Lynne Rienner, 1999)

[6] Philip Mauceri, ‘State, Elites and the Reponse to Insurgency, Some Preliminary Comparisons between Colombia and Peru’ in Jo-Marie Burt, Philip Mauceri (eds.), Politics in the Andes: Identity, Conflict, Reform (University of Pittsburgh Press, 2004)

[7] Rosemary Thorp and Maritza Paredes, Ethnicity and the persistence of inequality: the case of Peru (Palgrave Macmillan, 2010)

[8] Ibid., pp. 130

[9] Gregory D. Schmidt, ‘Fujimori’s 1990 Upset Victory in Peru: Electoral Rules, Contingencies, and Adaptive Strategies’, Comparative Politics, Vol. 28, No. 3 (Apr., 1996)

[10] Jo-Marie Burt ‘State Making against Democracy: The Case of Fujimori’s Peru’ in Jo-Marie Burt, Philip Mauceri (eds.), Politics in the Andes, p.251

[11] Neil Burron, ‘Curbing ‘Anti-Systemic’ Tendencies’

[12] Ibid.

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