Peru: Will Humala pursue deeper reforms?

By Marcela Torres

President Humala / Photo credit: OEA - OAS / Foter.com / CC BY-NC-ND

President Humala / Photo credit: OEA – OAS / Foter.com / CC BY-NC-ND

Facing growing public discontent, President Humala is attempting to navigate through yet another cabinet shuffle while struggling to advance reforms of the police, education, and health care.  The President’s approval rating has dropped from 65 percent soon after his inauguration in 2011 to an all-time low of 27 percent.  He swore in his fourth prime minister, César Villanueva, last week, after telling Prime Minister Juan Jiménez – in office for just 15 months – that it was time to “refresh” the cabinet.  Jiménez said he had been contemplating resigning for months, but recent polls suggest that growing crime and corruption, the two main issues citizens perceive to be afflicting the nation, forced him out.

Protests against Humala’s government have been growing.  In July, 8,000 demonstrators in Lima expressed their rejection not only of Humala’s government, but of the entire ruling political class.  Although still small compared with protests in other parts of Latin American, they were of a magnitude not been seen in the capital city since 2000, when protestors took the streets demanding President Fujimori´s resignation.  Unlike the rural indigenous protests over extractive industries, which have become commonplace under the administration, the participation of the middle class was evident and crucial in the July protests.  Social anger was sparked by a video showing members of the main political parties secretly negotiating highly controversial appointments involving individuals implicated in corruption.  Persons who had allegedly violated human rights were selected as the human rights ombudsman and as judges of the Constitutional Tribunal.  The uproar motivated Congress to immediately annul the secretly negotiated appointments, known as the repartija, which for many Peruvians resembled one of the traditional means by which the authoritarian government of Alberto Fujimori had avoided institutional checks and balances by placing regime-friendly officers in power.

The recent Peruvian protests are similar to social mobilizations taking place in Brazil, Chile and Colombia – other countries in which economic growth has not translated into broad public satisfaction.  While many protests in these countries have focused on the quality of social services, the recent Peruvian demonstrations have offered a critique of the country’s widespread corruption and backroom politics.  Peruvian demonstrators came from diverse sectors of society, including labor union members, students, artists, TV actors, gay rights activists, without clear leadership or coordinated demands.  This amorphous type of protest appears particular in Peru because civil society largely avoids political activism as a consequence of the stigmatization of collective social action after the defeat of Shining Path in the ‘90s.

Humala’s most recent cabinet reshuffle and his earnest but ineffective reform efforts suggest he appreciates the depth of the social discontent – now with middleclass support and the participation of youth.  Peruvians are not willing to tolerate the traditional corruption associated with the country’s politicians.  The lack of coordination among social movements that can connect rural and urban discontent, as well as the absence of political parties within the Peruvian landscape that can effectively mediate between citizens and the government, might limit the scope of social protests to isolated outcomes. If protestors come up with a clear agenda through legitimate leadership, however, President Humala will have to deepen his reforms or risk irrelevance through the remainder of his presidency.  Superficial changes appear unlikely to appease the middle class and civil society.