Peruvian Democracy in the 1990's

By Maisch, Christian J. | MACLAS Latin American Essays, March 1996 | Go to article overview

Peruvian Democracy in the 1990's

Maisch, Christian J., MACLAS Latin American Essays

Although Peru held presidential and congressional elections in April of 1995, and municipal elections in November of 1995, the status of democracy in Peru today leaves much to be desired. Behind the facade of a formal multi-party democracy with a relatively free press, the Peruvian political system is plagued by many serious problems. These include a strong, almost autocratic, presidential role; a subservient legislature; a not fully independent judiciary; and a subtle but pervasive government policy of intimidating and discrediting political opponents and potential political rivals.(2)

Real political power in Peru is concentrated--with the decisive support of the military--in the hands of civilian President Alberto Fujimori. Fujimori's followers enjoy a clear majority in the new unicameral congress, which acts mostly as a rubber stamp for the president and which has even repeatedly granted special legislative powers to the executive branch.(3) This congressional majority has also allowed Fujimori to pass--whenever he has found it expedient--special laws not only to circumvent the administration of justice in specific instances, but also to reorganize drastically and even unconstitutionally the entire structure of the judicial branch, clearly compromising its independence; as well as special laws designed to limit arbitrarily the autonomy and power of local or municipal governments.(4)

The emergence of this almost autocratic regime can be best explained as an overreaction to the extremely difficult decade of the 1980% in Peru. Peru returned to democratic role in July of 1980, after twelve years of military dictatorships. Those years of military dictatorships left the country not only mired in a deep economic crisis, but also very polarized politically and socially.

Tragically, the 1980's and early 1990's were also quite difficult. At the international level, Peru was burdened by the Latin American debt crisis. And at the domestic level, the country was plagued by terrorism, human rights violations, and drag traffic-related crime. Thus, at the end of the 1980's, Peru's external debt had reached 20 billion dollars;(5) hyperinflation had soared to 7,800%;(6) the economic rate of growth was actually a negative -11.8%;(7) and the level of unemployment and underemployment was over 70%.(8) In fact, during the 1985-1993 period, it was estimated that GNP per capita declined in real terms at an average annual rate of 3.5% while over the same period the population increased by an annual average rate of 2.1%.(9)

Meanwhile, estimates have indicated that since 1980, political violence in Peru has caused approximately 27,000 deaths(10) and 22 billion dollars in property damage.(11) In this context, according to Amnesty International, since 1982 the Peruvian security forces have been responsible for approximately 3,500 extrajudicial killings(12) and more than 4,200 "disappearances."(13)

A remarkable increase in criminal activity related to the growth in drug traffic further compounded this problem of lawlessness. According to the March 1996 U.S. Department of State, International Narcotics Control Strategy Report, Peru is the world's largest producer of coca, providing approximately 60% of the world's total. More specifically, Peru provides the raw material for approximately 80% of all the cocaine consumed in the United States.(14)

In the midst of this economic and political turmoil, Fujimori was first elected president in 1990. Although he had little background in politics,(15) Peruvians turned to Fujimori because he promised them a painless plan of slow-paced economic adjustment. This plan stood in sharp contrast to that of the writer-turned-presidential-candidate, Marlo Vargas Llosa, who had called frankly for shock therapy to mm the economy around, only to see his lead in the early opinion polls evaporate as a result of Fujimori's campaign promises.

Ironically, once in office Fujimori implemented his own shock therapy plan which was more severe than the one advocated by Vargas Llosa. …

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