Democracy, participation, and discontent: a crisis of governance for Peru?


Guest post by Jacob Bathanti

July 28 marked Peru’s day of national independence, the centerpiece of a series of celebrations collectively known as Fiestas Patrias.  U.S. readers might imagine this extended holiday as a combination July 4, Thanksgiving, and Decoration Day (in its most tragic and most triumphant senses).Peru Flag Icon

It’s also the occasion for the sitting president to deliver a major policy address, more or less equivalent to the State of the Union.  In this year’s speech, Peru’s president, Ollanta Humala, laid out an agenda which hit some nice notes, with the president focusing his attention on major themes of anti-corruption and social inclusion, with the latter to come both through social programs and through market-oriented growth.

There were few real details, and accordingly some commentators castigated the president for failing to concretely attend to major issues, such as citizen security, which are on many Peruvians’ minds.  Still, Humala is on message: in none of his vagueness did he depart from the key pieces of his overarching double-barreled agenda: pursuing economic growth while ensuring that no one is left behind. Not a bit of what he said in his address was unexpected.

This all sounds innocuous enough, but the political context is more fraught than all that.  Dealmaking among administration insiders and poorly handled attempts to rationalize the state bureaucracy have recently drawn very visible protests from young people, state employees, and the urban professional classes. And so it was that the most interesting part of Humala’s speech, as Rosario Yori has noted, came at the very end of the discourse.  That’s when Humala implicitly conceded that not everyone is happy with his administration, or his plans for transforming Peru; when he acknowledged, however obliquely, that the road toward “La gran transformacion” will not be without twists and turns; when he conceded that he is aware that his program runs the risk of being derailed by its supposed beneficiaries:

…in seeming recognition of the crowds gathered in protest outside of Congress, Humala ended his speech with a message to Peruvians. “I urge you to maintain your vigilance and capacity for indignation to prevent corruption, injustice and discrimination. My promise is to work with you and listen to your demands.”

It is a move not uncharacteristic of a president who has rhetorically embraced themes of popular participation without delivering concrete measures to drive forward a participatory agenda.  Even as Peru has seen an upsurge in in largely peaceful public demonstration, the Humala administration has asked demonstrators to ‘go home’; and even as municipalities have taken steps to push forward institutions of participatory democracy at the local level, the national administration stands accused of ignoring a pro-participation agenda at best, and of actively moving to neuter participatory institutions at worst.

This is problematic not merely from the standpoint of democracy theory. Peru’s conventional institutional framework is troubled, with weak and fragmented political parties, an unpopular Congress, and one of the least-trusted judiciaries in Latin America. I n this situation, Peru’s framework of participatory institutions – various arrangements that invite citizens to actively engage with political processes in a realm beyond simply voting and returning home to await the next electoral cycle – offers the best hope for a revitalization of the political scene.  But the Peruvian government has shown itself unprepared to take participatory institutions seriously.  This is a shame, because an injection of participatory democracy offers a chance to avert a crisis of governance, by fostering active citizenship to channel popular participation, and burgeoning discontent, in productive directions.

Below, I briefly lay out an institutional landscape in which local officials struggle with the implications of participatory democracy, and a landscape of contention in which protest movements are proliferating.  I then offer some suggestions for deepening Peru’s participatory institutions, expanding the substantive exercise of citizenship in ways that move beyond protest.

Panorama:  Protest and participation

Peru has been a leader in the legislation of participatory reforms. Chief among these is a participatory budget law that mandates participatory budgeting for local infrastructure projects. This is an impressive degree of citizen control, but it has not been without its problems.  Poor bureaucratic quality means that some projects are approved, but languish between approval and implementation.  In some sectors, public enthusiasm has begun to flag; in others, however, municipalities have launched innovative initiatives to expand participation and revitalize the process.

Meanwhile, plenty of Peruvians are also moving outside formal institutional channels, attempting to play the role of a veto power in the streets. The aforementioned “national disgrace” (verguenza nacional) protests were triggered by the appointment in Congress of a set of functionaries to the central bank, Supreme Court, and, most crucially, the national ombudsman (Defensoria del Pueblo).  These included shady lawyers and ardent supporters of the ex-dictator Alberto Fujimori, with the rest of the appointees simply ridiculed as incompetent, and the appointments transparently motivated by congressional deal-making rather than merit.  Protests were called in Lima and the secondary cities, pillorying the verguenza nacional of corruption and politics as usual.  In Puno, where I’m currently staying, a coterie of college students and indignant young people marched a coffin symbolizing national integrity down the main street to the Plaza de Armas.  And it worked!  In combination with some really satisfyingly vicious savaging of the appointments (and the appointees!) in Peru’s oft-ferocious press, these shows of popular anger at transactional politics-as-usual forced the Congress to withdraw the appointments.  Score one for the streets, but the deeper implication is that the organizational infrastructure and connections formed in this round of protest will remain, part of an expanded repertoire of contention available for activation.

At the same time, doctors and civil servants are currently up in arms over, respectively, a poor pay scale and the implementation of a civil service law, which they fear will hurt collective bargaining and threaten tenure arrangements.  Few deny that reform is necessary; indeed, analysts I’ve spoken to in Lima suggest that graft and overall poor quality in the bureaucracy are a major hindrance in promoting participatory reforms and implementing Humala’s cherished social programs. The law itself, though, has been fought out primarily along party transactional lines in the Congress, leaving potentially affected citizens little recourse but to go to the streets.

Down the road, however, lies the slumbering great-granddaddy of protest movements: indignation at the imposition of massive extractive projects in Peru’s indigenous highlands.  Peru, in theory, has another institution in place to manage this: laws mandating consulta previa, or prior consultation before mining projects get started. Perversely, however, these consultations are limited to indigenous populations, and, yet more perversely, the national government recently mandated the removal of Quechua-speakers from the list of indigenous peoples entitled to consulta previa.  This is both unjust and unwise.  While the obligation of consulta previa is often seen as an unnecessary delay by investors, it offers the possibility of peaceful voice to affected populations, and allows companies to make concessions and offer alleviation for damages upfront.  The alternative is deeply disruptive contention; as Peru moves to expand mining investment, big, and potentially violent protests, are only a matter of time.

The cure for participatory democracy is more participatory democracy

Peru’s diversity and still-formidable cross-cutting social and ethnic inequalities cannot be adequately managed in a top-down and arbitrary manner from Lima.  Local corruption cannot be uprooted without local engagement, sometimes contentious and confrontational, by civil society. Cutting local populations out of the conversation on extractives policy will only catalyze conflict.  And continually staking out a confrontational stance toward protest movements will only exacerbate the problem.

Humala’s challenge, now, is two-fold. It is crucial that he calm a wave of protests that could hurt Peru’s image as a stable destination for investment, trade, and tourism. At the same time, his administration will need to harness the power of a growing participatory wave to boost anti-corruption efforts and, in the long-term, to move forward substantive process of democratic social inclusion. The thorny problem is how to make these goals work in tandem. Humala will need to strengthen innovative institutional arrangements for participation, while softening his tone toward protesters and pursuing dialogue. The latter means meeting with indignant civil servants and health workers, and attempting to broker a compromise instead of ramming reforms through Congress. Administrative reforms are indispensable to delivering on Humala’s agenda, but must come as part of a consultative process. The former would mean allocating more authority to participatory budgeting projects, and expanding democratization of local fiscal processes, and increasing the transparency needed for effective citizen participation.  Enabling citizen oversight of conventional institutions, at the national and local level, might help curtail corruption, enlisting the public as an ally in Humala’s proposed anti-graft campaign.  And reinstating consulta previa for Quechua-speakers is vital to avoid conflagrations in the long term.

Whether Humala can, or even would if he could, deepen and harness popular participation to drive forward an inclusive agenda is debatable. Temperamentally, he may be more comfortable acting as an authoritarian modernizer, governing in not-so-splendid isolation.  But Peru stands a better chance of averting a crisis of governance by deepening participatory mechanisms and working with – not against – mobilized populations. Humala’s promise to work with demonstrators, and to listen to their demands as citizens staking a claim to participate in their democracy, had better be sincere if he wants to achieve substantively inclusive growth without crippling social conflict.

Photo credit to Enrique Castro-Mendivil / Reuters.

Jacob Bathanti is currently based in Peru and blogs on Latin American politics and open government at Obscure SuddhaHe holds a graduate degree in Latin American Studies from Georgetown University and has worked for the International Budget Partnership in Washington, D.C.

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