Protesters Focus On Peru's Political Establishment

News of protests and social unrest in Peru tend not to come as a great surprise. Indeed, the country is one of the most prone in Latin America to such events. However, one surprising aspect of the events of the past two weeks, which saw large numbers take to the streets of the capital, Lima, is that, rather than being focused on local issues, such as the impact of large-scale mining, the protests have expressed a broad frustration with Peru's political establishment. In this way, they mirror recent protests in Brazil.

The trigger for the protests was the release of a recording in the media of an apparent behind-the-scenes deal between Peru's five main political parties to appoint six new judges to Peru's highest court, the new human rights ombudsman and three Central Bank board members.

Although the appointments were legally and constitutionally valid, the manner in which they were pushed through led to some of the largest street protests in Lima since the late 1990s when thousands took to the streets to protest against the then president, Alberto Fujimori. Criticism of the process focused on a perception among the public that politicians had acted out of a desire to advance the needs of political parties, rather than to make real improvements to Peru's institutional framework. The appointments, now commonly referred to as the repartija (carve-up), were subsequently withdrawn by a special session of Congress.

Media and large swathes of the public united in condemnation

However, the repartija served as the trigger for a wave of protests, which, in reality, expressed frustrations with Peru's political system that have existed for years. Significantly, almost the entire media, regardless of its political orientation, united in its condemnation of the repartija. This was also reflected in the diversity of the demonstrators, who were made up of various elements of the political spectrum. Driven and organised through social media, the protests brought the issue to national attention (subsequent opinion polls showed that only 30 percent of Lima's population had known that the appointments were taking place) and exposed the extent of public outrage with Peru's political class.

The backdrop to the Peruvian political scene is instructive. Mr Fujimori (president from 1990 to 2000) is currently serving a 25-year prison sentence for corruption and human rights abuses during his time in office. His daughter, Keiko Fujimori, who narrowly lost to the current president, Ollanta Humala, in the 2011 presidential election run-off, continues to campaign for her father to be pardoned (Mr Humala rejected a request for a judicial pardon from the fujimorista bloc in June).

Peru's two most recent presidents, Alejandro Toledo (2001-06) and Alan García (2006-11) are both facing congressional inquiries. Mr Toledo is being investigated over the acquisition of premium real estate by family members. The investigation into Mr García was also triggered by a house purchase, although the focus of his case has shifted to some of his decisions while in office, particularly some 5,500 judicial pardons. Given this backdrop, a feeling of disillusion with the political system and questions over whether it is truly representative of the wider population's interests are inevitable.

As has been the case with similar protests around the world in recent years, the initial protests in Lima were made up largely of members of Peru's burgeoning middle class. However, over time the protesters became drawn from a wider range of society. On July 28th Mr Humala delivered his state of the nation address--the most closely watched political event of the year. Protests were carried out over the entire weekend by trade unions, which combined with students, social movements and the instigators of the Lima protests to bring about a fresh wave of protests. As was the case in Brazil, the list of demands expanded to include, among other things, grievances with the current government's performance.

The president is looking increasingly isolated

The scale and intensity of the protests have now eased somewhat. But protests elsewhere have demonstrated there is a significant risk of resurgence at the slightest hint of a similar controversy. The problem for Peru's political class will be how to alter public perceptions that it is not interested in furthering the public's needs and how to strengthen the country's weak institutional framework. Given its history of corruption and clientelism, this will present a significant challenge.

And although the protests were against the entire political establishment -- rather than specifically focusing on the president -- they have increased pressure on Humala and have weakened his position. The president's approval ratings as the protests kicked off, had hit an all-time low. Demonstrations in the streets will have done little to improve that.

This coincides with Humala looking increasingly isolated in Congress, as former left-leaning supporters abandon him -- owing to his orthodox policy stance -- and as his congressional alliance with the Perú Posible (PP) party comes under strain as the investigation into Mr Toledo, the PP's leader, continues. With the spectre of further protests continuing to haunt his administration, and threatening to damage Peru's image as one of Latin America's fastest-growing and most business-friendly economies, clawing back his falling approval ratings will be a major challenge during the remainder of his term. The path to 2017 suddenly looks like an uphill struggle.