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Demonstrators demand that Peru's President Dina Boluarte step down, in Lima, Peru, on Jan. 28, 2023.SEBASTIAN CASTANEDA/Reuters

Maxwell Cameron is a professor of political science at the University of British Columbia.

There are many reasons for the current crisis in Peru, but one, in particular, has not been given sufficient attention: the refusal of political losers to accept the outcome of a free and fair election.

The removal of former Peruvian president Pedro Castillo by Congress in December, his subsequent detention on charges of rebellion and conspiracy and his replacement by his vice-president, Dina Boluarte, were the most recent acts in a long-running drama of electoral denialism that began with the last general election in April, 2021.

Mr. Castillo, a former rural teacher and union activist with no prior political experience, emerged as the unexpected presidential front-runner in 2021. In a runoff vote, he defeated the second-strongest candidate, Keiko Fujimori, daughter of the former dictator Alberto Fujimori. Taking a page from the playbook of former U.S. president Donald Trump, Ms. Fujimori refused to concede and challenged the election result with baseless allegations of fraud in polling stations across the country.

Peru’s election authorities upheld the result and Mr. Castillo was sworn into office in July, 2021, but the right-wing opposition to his left-wing government in Congress would not relent. They tried in vain to remove Mr. Castillo in November of that year and again in March, 2022. Armed with allegations of corruption, they hoped to garner enough votes for a third attempt to “vacate” the presidency on grounds of “moral incapacity” in December.

Striking pre-emptively, Mr. Castillo announced on the morning of Dec. 7 that he would close Congress before the matter of his moral capacity could be brought to a vote. Without broad popular support and the backing of the armed forces, his hasty and ill-timed presidential “self-coup” was doomed to fail. Within hours, Mr. Castillo was arrested by the police and replaced by Ms. Boluarte.

Despite the fact that he is widely seen as inept, and likely corrupt, Mr. Castillo’s removal was a blow to his supporters. Their sense of betrayal was heightened when Ms. Boluarte indicated her intention to work with the conservative opposition in Congress and to serve out the remainder of Mr. Castillo’s term. When she backtracked and called for elections in April, 2024, it was seen as too little, too late. Protesters have called for Ms. Boluarte’s resignation, new elections and a constituent assembly to rewrite the constitution. Their demands have been met by heavy-handed police repression, which has spiralled into ever-deadlier confrontations.

It is no coincidence that the flashpoints of protest and repression that have claimed the lives of nearly 60 people since early December have occurred mainly in remote, rural areas of Peru – the south and central highlands, especially Puno, Cuzco, Apurimac, Arequipa and Ayacucho – where Ms. Fujimori sought to annul as many as 200,000 votes.

Dialogue and negotiations are desperately needed, but there is a vacuum of political leadership and organization. Peru lacks organized political parties or civil society organizations capable of channelling and representing citizens’ political interests, and worse still, there is a lack of will among political parties to negotiate and compromise. On Jan. 27, members of Congress voted down a proposal for early elections.

Peru is not the only country in South America to contend with electoral denialism: Newly elected Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva has had to contend with mobs of angry supporters of former president Jair Bolsonaro, who earlier this month attempted to seize government offices in Brasilia based on specious claims of electoral fraud. But Peru is where electoral denialism has succeeded.

This poses a dilemma for the international community. Ms. Boluarte is the constitutionally designated successor to Mr. Castillo, but she is unpopular, politically responsible for human-rights abuses and the beneficiary of an intransigent opposition in Congress.

Three uncertain pathways loom over Peru’s future. The first, which should be convened as soon as administratively possible in order to release pressure on the political system, would be to hold a new general election. Ms. Boluarte herself has advocated for this solution and has promised to send new legislation to Congress to enable elections this year if Peru’s lawmakers cannot reach an agreement on their own. A second pathway could involve new elections accompanied by a popular referendum to convene a constituent assembly to rewrite the country’s constitution. This would be a major concession to the demands of the protesters, but is likely to be met with stiff opposition from Congress. A final, extremely negative, scenario would see the further militarization of the current regime and, in all likelihood, worsening civil conflict.

Which pathway Peru chooses will depend crucially on political leadership. For the rest of the world, Peru offers a cautionary tale of the dangers of extreme polarization and electoral denialism.

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