Lessons from Bolivia and Peru
Dr Gustavo Bonifaz is GPG’s Research & Analysis Manager. He has over 15 years of experience in quantitative, qualitative, and mixed-methodologies research which he applied in academia and governance, with special attention to the Central Andean region. In this blog, Gustavo considers the cases of Bolivia and Peru, and compares how each country’s parliament weathered the political crisis they recently experienced, and which factors contributed to widely different outcomes – further violence for Peru on the one hand, against peaceful transition in the case of Bolivia.
In November of 2019, Bolivia and Peru parliaments faced violent political unrest. While their responses contained the conflict in the short term, over the medium term their outcomes diverged. The Peruvian parliament deepened polarization, which reignited violence in 2022-2023. The Bolivian parliament facilitated a peaceful transition despite being dominated by the party ousted from executive power during the protests. In the following lines, I reflect on what accounts for such wildly divergent outcomes.
In Peru, mass protests and uncivil unrest began in response to the Peruvian parliament’s declaration of then President Pedro Vizcarra as “morally incapable” of governing. Moral incapacity is one of a handful of constitutional grounds for impeachment, according to Peru’s constitution. Vizcarra himself assumed power in 2018 after Pedro Pablo Kuccynsky (PPK) resigned, before being impeached for moral incapacity only two years after being elected in free and fair elections. PPK was accused of receiving bribes from the infamous construction company Oberdrecht. To replace Vizcarra, a coalition of lawmakers installed MP Manuel Merino as the new president. But violent protests continued, leaving two protestors dead, dozens injured, and many more imprisoned. Merino felt obliged to resigne, giving way to MP Francisco Sagasti, a transitional President in charge of calling for new elections.
Elections only took place in April of 2021, after the worst of the COVID-19 pandemic had passed. Pedro Castillo, leading a leftist coalition of popular forces won in a narrow second round balloting against Keiko Fujimori, daughter of former president Alberto Fujimori who carried out an auto-coup and closed parliament in 1992. Given the fragmented character of the party system, Castillo faced a strong parliamentary opposition from the start. Citing several corruption scandals involving his close circle, the opposition attempted to impeach him for “moral incapacity”. In preparation, parliament forced Castillo to change several Ministers and forbade him from leaving the country. In late 2022, it seemed that the opposition had enough votes to impeach Castillo, who swiftly moved to illegally dissolve parliament. Immediately, his cabinet and the armed forces turned against him, and parliament impeached him for conspiracy and rebellion. However, Castillo’s supporters, especially those in the impoverished south, objected that it was indeed parliament which had carried out a coup against Castillo. They protested parliament’s decision of calling a new election in 2024 and not before. Violent protests were confronted by the armed forces, causing close to 50 deaths and more than a thousand injuries.
In Bolivia, presidential and parliamentary elections took place in October 2019. Early results suggested that neither incumbent Evo Morales of the Movement towards Socialism (MAS) nor the main opposition candidate, Carlos Mesa of Citizen Community (CC), had won outright. A runoff election would be needed, and Mesa was likely to win it since other opposition parties had begun to pledge their support. The Supreme Electoral Tribunal’s (TSE) rapid count system also hinted at a runoff. However, without any credible reason, the rapid count stopped, and when it was reinstalled the next day, it showed a close victory for Morales in the first round. An Organization of American States (OAS) observation mission criticized the tally, expressing it contradicted independent counts. The Bolivian government invited the OAS to carry out an audit, which confirmed that the entire process was unlawfully manipulated from the executive branch, and facilitated by the TSE.
Supporters and detractors of Morales engaged in violent confrontations. Bolivia’s Vice President along with the heads of the higher and lower chambers of parliament resigned after Morales lost the support of the military and police. Days later, opposition MP Jeanine Áñez, the highest-ranking parliamentarian in the line of succession who had not yet resigned, assumed an interim presidency. Áñez faced a wave of protests from Morales’ supporters and ordered security forces to supress them. This resulted in the death of over 30 people in what has been described as massacres. Several detractors of Morales died before his resignation, attacked by organised groups of his supporters. Violence only stopped after an almost unanimous parliamentary agreement between the interim government’s party and the MAS. The truce established a new election date and agreement to select a new TSE. The newly installed TSE established May 2020 as the date for the new election; however, it was postponed until October due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The results of the October 2020 poll showed a clear victory for MAS candidate Luis Arce (55%) over Mesa (28%), precluding the need for a runoff. Voter turnout was high, independent observers deemed the poll as fair, competing parties and key stakeholders accepted the result.
Bolivian democracy is far from ideal. The judiciary is not independent, which led the MAS to imprison Áñez, accusing her of carrying out a coup, although the role of its parliamentary majority in facilitating the transition weakens the argument. The Arce administration has faced protests, but polarisation has not threatened Bolivian democracy existentially, as it did in 2019.
How to explain different outcomes? Three factors stand out:
Constitutions The clause that establishes “moral incapacity” as a reason to impeach a president in Peru is extremely vague. It has caused almost every parliament to try to impeach Peruvian presidents for a variety of reasons. The Peruvian constitution establishes a relatively powerful unicameral parliament, which has created a confrontational spirit of corps in its relations with the executive. On the contrary, Bolivia has an upper chamber representing the country’s nine departments. Given the geographic and socio-economic diversity of the country, the upper chamber tempers the impulses of the lower chamber, which represents the population. Bolivia’s constitution lacks a provision to impeach a president for moral incapacity. Rather, impeachment mechanisms entail a complex process of iteration between the higher and lower chambers. This is why the MAS imprisoned Áñez as an ordinary citizen rather than impeaching her—a measure that will certainly backfire legally and before the international community.
Electoral laws Both Peru and Bolivia have presidential electoral systems that call for a runoff election if the winner of the first round does not reach a minimum threshold. In their respective first round elections, both countries also elect their parliaments. Peru’s threshold is 50% whereas Bolivia’s is 40% plus 10% difference between the first- and the second-placed candidates. In the context of a very fragmented party system, the first round tends to produce, if anything, a small parliamentary majority for the candidate who wins the runoff election in Peru; whereas in Bolivia the first-round election exaggerates the winner’s parliamentary majority. The hegemonic party MAS was overrepresented in parliament until 2019. This could have created a hung parliament if Mesa had won the second round. But Morales wanted to control the executive at all cost. In other words, despite the rather mechanical ways in which electoral systems can, theoretically, balanced stability and representation, in the end it is down to the dynamics of politics, power, and leadership. Parliaments, for their part, must not be afraid to step up to the challenge of checking executive power in times of conflict.
Politics and power For several years, commentators discussed the “positive” unintended consequences of the lack of structured and ideological mass parties in Peru. This made politics allegedly less confrontational, allowing consecutive governments to concentrate on delivering on what has been an unprecedented cycle of economic growth. However, weak parties meant parliamentary fragmentation, volatility, and loose party discipline. Parliamentarians blackmailed presidents to defect to the opposition and even to impeach them if they did not benefit their constituents or specific lobby groups. More importantly, it meant extremely short-term incentives for parliamentarians to cling to power, since their party or leader might not make it to the next election. This explains their reluctance to call for new elections earlier in 2019 and 2023. Bolivia, with fewer resources, managed to carry out national elections a year after the failed elections of 2019 amidst the pandemic.
Although the Bolivian opposition has been divided and volatile since 2005, the ruling party (MAS) has remained highly cohesive and generally aligned with the demands of its grass-roots foundations. This cohesion proved important even when the president and the executive fled the country in 2019. MAS then used its structures to debate and coalesce behind their new leadership and agree to hold new elections instead of responding with violence (a position favoured by a minority of MAS supporters). Younger leaders saw the opportunity for a generational change within the party and, therefore, faced incentives to favour a negotiated transition.
Lessons to work with parliaments in times of conflict.
GPG works with elected politicians to improve the representativeness and effectiveness of political institutions. Although we acknowledge the importance of reforming formal institutions for that purpose, we believe that change depends on a combination of behaviour and structure. Structural changes such as scrapping the “moral incapacity” clause in the Peruvian constitution or improving Bolivia’s and Peruvian electoral law to produce greater alignment between the composition of parliament and the winner of the second round, could have helped both countries to avoid violence in 2019 and 2022-2023. No matter how perfectly crafted such institutions may be, there are clear problems when it comes to the behaviour of politicians in both countries.
In Peru, corruption is a constant, undermining the legitimacy of politicians and parties, which in turn resulted in the fragmentation and volatility of the party system. The scars of the violent conflict between the Shining Path and the State during the 1980s, might have created a reluctance, amongst politicians, to be too ideological in their electoral strategies. In Bolivia, the problem is the opposite: there is a deeply divided political class, informed by completely opposing views of the country’s past and desirable future. In both cases, however, young leaders have shown that there might be cultural change in the making. Organisations such as GPG can help to strengthen the leadership skills of these new generations and entreat them to respect both the spirit and the letter of the laws governing their use of power