When Dina Boluarte was anointed as Peru’s sixth president in five years, she had to fight on two fronts: to appease lawmakers who toppled their boss and predecessor, Pedro Castillo, and to calm protesters who were furious at the dethroning of yet another president were.
She called for a “political truce” with Congress on her first day on the job — a peace offering to the legislature, which was at odds with Castillo and impeached him in December after he undemocratically attempted to dissolve Congress.
But nearly two months later, her presidency looks even more battered than Castillo’s aborted tenure. Several ministers in her government have resigned amid the country’s most violent protests in decades. On Tuesday she was again forced to call a ceasefire – this time appealing to the protesters, many of whom are from Peru’s predominantly indigenous rural areas, and saying in Quechua that she was one of them.
Boluarte, who was born in a largely indigenous region of south-central Peru where Quechua is the most spoken language, may have been the leader, channeling and working with the protesters’ frustrations. She has made much of her rural origins, initially rising to power as vice-president of Castillo on the left-wing Peru Libre party map, buoyed by the rural and indigenous voice.
But her plea for mutual understanding with the protesters now likely comes too late in what analysts are calling the deadliest popular uprising in South America in years. Officials say 56 civilians and a police officer were killed and hundreds more injured in the violence as protesters called for snap elections, a new constitution and Boluarte’s resignation.
Boluarte has tried to placate the protesters and asked Congress for an earlier election date. However, the Peruvian Congress on Saturday rejected a request to bring the elections forward to December 2023. The proposal received 45 votes in favour, 62 against and 2 abstentions.
Parliament leader José Williams Zapata announced that a “review” of the result would be presented after the first vote. Congress will reconvene Monday at 10 a.m. local time, he said.
“We regret that the Congress of the Republic could not agree to set the date for the general elections in which Peruvians will be able to freely and democratically elect the new authorities,” the Peruvian President’s Twitter account wrote in a tweet.
“We call on the banks to put aside their partisan and group interests and put Peru’s interests first. Our citizens expect a clear answer as soon as possible, which will pave the way out of the political crisis and create social peace,” she added.
Peru observers say Boluarte already made the fatal mistake of distancing herself from the rural electorate after taking the top job as Peru’s first female president.
“You have to understand Boluarte’s own ambitions, she was clearly willing to sacrifice her left-wing ideas and principles to build a coalition with the right to stay in power,” Jo-Marie Burt, a senior fellow in the Washington Office for Latin America and an expert on Peru, said CNN. “And use violence against the same people who voted for the Castillo-Boluarte ticket.”
Castillo’s brief tenure saw him face a hostile Congress in the hands of the opposition, limiting his political capital and ability to act. “[Boluarte]had to make a choice: either go the Castillo way and spend the next four years fighting a Congress that wants to impeach her, or side with the right and take power,” Alonso Gurmendi, Lecturer in International Relations at Oxford University, a Peruvian legal expert, told CNN.
Experts say she chose the latter, distanced herself from Castillo and instead relied on the support of a broad coalition of right-wing politicians to remain in the presidency. CNN has reached out to Boluarte’s office for comment and has repeatedly requested an interview.
During her inauguration, former political rival Keiko Fujimori — whose father Alberto Fujimori is a former president who used security forces to repress opponents during his decades-long rule in Peru — said Boluarte could count on “the support and backing” of their party.
Boluarte’s woes are a far cry from her beginnings in the Peruvian civil service, where she worked at the National Register of Identification and Civil Status in Surco, as an executive consultant and later as the head of the local office.
She ran for mayor of Surquillo in 2018 with the Marxist-Leninist Peru Libre party. She failed to win a seat in the 2020 general election, but had better luck as Castillo’s running mate the following year.
In an interview with CNN en Espanol that year, Boluarte clarified a statement she had made on the dissolution of the Congress: “We need a Congress that works for the needs of Peruvian society and that coordinates positively with the executive branch so that both branches of the state can have power.” be able to work in a coordinated way to meet the diverse needs of Peruvian society. We don’t want an obstructive Congress… I never said we’re going to shut down Congress.”
Also from rural Peru, Castillo, a former teacher and union leader, positioned himself as a man of the people. Despite his political inexperience and mounting corruption scandals, Castillo’s presidency was a symbolic victory for many of his rural supporters. They hoped that he would offer better prospects for the country’s rural and indigenous population, who had long felt excluded from Peru’s economic boom over the past decade.
His fall from power last year was seen by some of his supporters as yet another attempt by Peru’s coastal elite to ignore them.
The public has long been disillusioned with the legislature, which has been criticized for being self-serving and outspoken. In a January poll by the Institute for Peruvian Studies (IEP), more than 80% of Peruvians say they disapprove of Congress.
The public also has a bad image of Boluarte, according to an IPSOS poll that showed 68% disapproved of them in December. According to the survey, that number rose to 71% in January. She’s more unpopular in rural areas, according to the same survey, which showed she had an 85% dislike in rural areas compared to urban areas (76%) in January.
January 2022 Peru Libre expelled her from the party. She told the Peruvian newspaper La República at the time that she “never embraced the ideology of Peru Libre.”
As protests spread to many of Peru’s 25 regions following Castillo’s arrest, the Boluarte government declared a state of emergency and strengthened its law and order policies.
According to human rights activists, the country has since recorded its highest civilian death toll since strongman Alberto Fujimori came to power when 17 civilians were killed during a protest in the south-eastern Puno region on January 9. A police officer was burned at Puno the following day. Autopsies of the 17 dead civilians revealed wounds inflicted by firearm bullets, the city’s head of coroner’s medicine told CNN en Español.
Human rights groups have accused Boluarte of using state force to quell protests, and on January 11 Peru’s prosecutor launched an investigation into the president and other key ministers for the alleged crime of “genocide, aggravated murder and serious injury” related to the bloodshed .
Boluarte has said she will cooperate with the investigation but plans to remain in office and has shown little sympathy for the protesters. “I will not resign, my commitment is to Peru, not to this tiny group that is making the country bleed,” she said in a televised address days after the investigation was announced.
Asked why she didn’t stop security officials from using deadly weapons against protesters, Boluarte said on Tuesday that investigations would determine where the bullets “come from” and speculated without evidence that Bolivian activists may have brought weapons to Peru – a claim that Burt describes as “a total conspiracy theory”.
Boluarte has done little to mitigate the angry rhetoric that officials, sections of the press and the public are using to criticize the ongoing demonstrations. Boluarte himself described the protests as “terrorism” – a label the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) has warned could create a “climate of more violence”.
During Tuesday’s press conference, she rekindled tensions. Asked how she plans to implement a national ceasefire, she said attempts at dialogue with representatives in the Puno region have not been successful. “We must protect the lives and tranquility of 33 million Peruvians. Puno is not Peru,” she said. At least 20 civilians have died in clashes in the region, according to the Peruvian Ombudsman’s office, and the comment sparked an immediate online backlash.
The President’s Office later apologized for the statement on twitter, that Boluarte’s words were misinterpreted and that the President wanted to emphasize that the safety of all Peruvians is important. “We apologize to the sisters and brothers of our beloved highland region,” she wrote.
With no end in sight to the protests, Boluarte scaled back inflammatory rhetoric when speaking at a special meeting on the Peru crisis at the Organization of American States (OAS) on Wednesday.
She announced plans to investigate alleged abuses by security forces on protesters, adding that while she respects the “legitimate right to protest peacefully,” it is also true that the state has a duty to ensure security and home order to care.
The violence had caused around $1 billion in damage to the country and affected 240,000 businesses, but she was “deeply distressed” at the “loss of many compatriots,” she said.
Boluarte again appealed to her former constituency, the indigenous Peruvians. “They are the great force we must engage to achieve development with justice,” she said. “Your contributions to national development must be valued as much as your strength.”