A Fault in Our Democracy

Examining Peru’s Unsuccessful Transition to Citizen-Centered Governance

Former Peruvian President Alejandro Toledo with former US President George W. Bush at the Palacio de Gobierno (from the Peruvian Embassy ®).

Peru — a country with a notably tumultuous history in regards to its application of civilian governance — reinstituted a democratic system of rule following the conclusion of Alberto Fujimori’s dictatorship during the tail end of the twentieth century. Fujimori — deposed due to widespread unrest over his government’s abusive and corrupt tendencies — fled Peru in 2001; following a brief period of interim governance, Alejandro Toledo — who captured 60% of the general vote in the 2001 presidential election — was given the responsibility of spearheading yet another attempt at establishing sustainable democratic rule in Peru (“Alejandro Toledo”). Unfortunately, Toledo failed to adopt a genuine model of citizen-centered governance, thereby sentencing Peru to a series of maligned, self-interested administrations ever since (Wright, 52).

This paper explores Peru’s transition from the Fujimori dictatorship to Toledo’s presidency, with the intent of illustrating the reasons why the re-establishment of citizen-centered governance in Peru did not attain its expected results. First, I provide background information on the nature of Fujimori’s oppressive regime, specifically on the issues that ultimately led to his deposal. Second, I analyze Toledo’s tenure in office, focusing on the elements of Toledo’s presidency that ultimately hindered the benefits of reinstituting democratic rule (i.e. why the change to citizen-centered governance failed). Finally, I evaluate the lessons we can garner from the unsuccessful re-implementation of citizen-centered governance in Peru, and provide policy recommendations for states undergoing a transition of a similar nature.

The Fujimori Dictatorship: Subversion of Democratic Rule

Former Peruvian President Alberto Fujimori (from La Revista Visión ®).

Alberto Fujimori captured the 1990 presidential election in a surprising fashion: regarded primarily as a dark-horse candidate, Fujimori ultimately ousted renowned author Mario Vargas Llosa, obtaining over 60% of the vote in the second round of balloting (Carrión, 65). Upon assuming office, Fujimori instituted a series of neo-liberal economic policies, spurring an influx of foreign investment; as a result, Peru’s economy grew by an average of 4% per year during Fujimori’s time in office. The ‘Fujishock’ — as Peru’s pronounced economic growth in the 1990’s was ultimately termed — solidified Fujimori’s popularity amongst Peruvians, thereby facilitating the authoritarian maneuvers he would later execute (Carrión, 302).

In the spring of 1992, Fujimori — citing the need for greater versatility to combat the growing Maoist terrorist threat — orchestrated a ‘self-inflicted coup’ (or autogolpe), effectively dissolving Congress and the judiciary (McMillan and Zoido, 71). Fujimori’s coup received substantial support from the general public, fueled primarily by widespread discontent with Congress’s blatant stagnancy. As a result of the autogolpe, Fujimori temporarily gained full powers to issue decree laws (McMillan and Zoido, 71). Facilitated by a lack of oversight, Fujimori essentially manufactured a new constitution in 1993, one that dissolved significant tenants of the prior democratic framework of government. Moreover, Fujimori fabricated a new, single legislative body — the Democratic Constitutional Congress — in which his fellow party members held the majority of seats (McMillan and Zoido, 72). Consequentially, Fujimori was allowed to impose an authoritarian system of governance; essentially, Peru underwent a series of semi-permanent states of emergency, sanctioned with the purpose of instituting a “legal mechanism to install a regime of terror” (Wright, 61). Thus, the remainder of Fujimori’s time in office was characterized by systemic corruption, recurrent abuses of power and widespread assaults on fundamental human rights.

Whilst recounting the complete extent of Fujimori’s immoral endeavors is not the purpose of this paper, it is necessary to highlight several incidents from Fujimori’s tenure that ultimately paved the way for the reinstitution of citizen-centered governance. In addition to the scandalous incidents involving the use of death squads to subvert political opponents,[1] Fujimori’s ties to Vladimiro Montesinos Torres — head of Peru’s National Intelligence Service (SIN) and a fellow with a remarkably checkered history[2] — ultimately propagated his downfall. Montesinos essentially served as Fujimori’s ‘bribe henchman’, as he “methodically bribed judges, politicians, and the news media” to facilitate Fujimori’s subversion of democratic rule (McMillan and Zoido, 69). All in all, Montesinos had over half of the Democratic Constitutional Congress, the majority of Fujimori’s cabinet, three out of the five Supreme Court Justices, and four of the primary television outlets (in addition to several major newspapers) in his pocket (McMillan and Zoido, 87). Hence — through Montesinos’ bribing schemes — Fujimori was able to “maintain the façade of democracy” whilst wielding unparalleled power (McMillan and Zoido, 69).

Vladimiro Montesinos, Fujimori’s vicious henchman (from Andina ®).

Rather strikingly, Montesinos organized meticulous records of all of his bribe transactions (which included the signing of ‘bribe contracts’), and even taped his illicit negotiations.[3] Montesinos’ unusual tendencies eventually cost him — and Fujimori — dearly: in the fall of 2000, the so-called Vladivideos (i.e. the tapes of Montesinos’ bribe negotiations) were leaked from the SIN headquarters, and broadcasted uninterruptedly by all major television outlets: even the corporations who were on Montesinos’ payroll ultimately broke rank and displayed the tapes (McMillan and Zoido, 89). While the corrupt nature of Fujimori’s government had long been established, the timing of the Vladivideos release proved to be key for spurring collective action against the government: Fujimori’s election to a third term — in early 2000 — was blatantly rigged, and Peru was no longer reaping the economic benefits of the Fujishock (the country only grew by 1.2% between 1998 and 2000) (“Survivor Toledo”). Thus, the worsening economic and political climate at the time of the Vladivideos broadcasting proved to be a significant propellant for civilian unrest.

Following the Vladivideos debacle, both Fujimori and Montesinos fled the country. Fujimori gave note of his resignation via fax, once safe on Japanese soil.[4] Montesinos was ultimately captured in Venezuela, extradited to Peru and imprisoned. Thus, having dismantled the main components of the Fujimori dictatorship, Peru embarked on what proved to be an obstacle-ridden course towards the reestablishment of democracy.

Toledo’s Presidency: The Faults of an Incipient Democracy

Alejandro Toledo — a prominent member of Peru’s primary opposition party during Fujimori’s regime — won the Peruvian presidential election in the spring of 2001. Toledo’s election inspired great expectations amongst the Peruvian populace, given that the incoming administration promised to fight corruption and extinguish human rights abuses, two characteristic elements of the Fujimori dictatorship (“Alejandro Toledo”). Indeed, corruption and human rights abuses were the fundamental ‘problems’ Peruvians wanted the change to citizen-centered governance to address; thus — given that Toledo promised to specifically resolve the issues they were most concerned about — Peruvians were justifiably optimistic about the reinstitution of democratic rule.

Unfortunately, Peru’s reestablishment of a democratic system was not as beneficial as expected. Why? Particularly, Peru’s change to citizen-centered governance was undermined by the continuation of ‘Fujimorian’ tendencies during Toledo’s presidency. Hence, the Toledo administration — whilst professing to be staunchly anti-Fujimorian — actually mimicked the dispositions of the former dictator, by engaging in questionable, seemingly authoritarian activities (Wright, 61).[5]

Particularly, Toledo’s reliance on regimes of exception — i.e. the institution of states of emergency and states of siege — undermined the democratic nature of his tenure, thereby inducing widespread disappointment with the state of affairs under Peru’s supposedly citizen-centered regime (Carrión, 149).[6] Whilst regimes of exception are present in most democratic frameworks, Toledo adopted an extended — and arguably abusive — interpretation of what merited the imposition of a state of emergency: rather controversially, Toledo utilized regimes of exception to deal with social unrest.

For instance — in the summer of 2002 — Toledo enforced a state of emergency to counter growing protests in the southern province of Arequipa: Toledo suspended several constitutional rights — such as the freedom of transit and association — to counter manifestations against the government’s plan to privatize two major electricity power plants in the region (Salas). Although the protests did eventually turn violent, was a state of emergency actually warranted? Theoretically, regimes of exception should be reserved for exactly that: exceptions. The Arequipa anti-privatization protests were not extraordinary by any measure; indeed, simultaneous anti-government manifestations — of a similar magnitude to Arequipa’s — were being carried out in Tacna, Cusco, Iquitos and Lima (Lama). Why did Toledo’s state of emergency solely target Arequipa? Although there is not sufficient evidence on the matter, it appears to be that Toledo’s decision was fueled by financial interests: transferring Arequipa’s two power plants to the interested French corporation would subsequently engulf the government’s coffins; given the continuation of Peru’s rampant bureaucratic corruption under Toledo’s regime, it is not outrageous to suggest that the enforcement of Arequipa’s regime of exception may have been motivated by interests extraneous to the actual situation on the ground (Salas). Overall, Toledo’s imposition of a regime of exception in Arequipa set a dangerous precedent for the remainder of his term: the fact that Toledo was willing to wield the tool of states of emergency to induce favorable outcomes for his administration (and/or private vested interests) hinted at the continuation of Fujimorian authoritarian tendencies under Toledo’s government.

Toledo faced growing nationwide manifestations against his government during the summer of 2003 (from AP ®).

Said Fujimorian authoritarian tendencies were under full display when — in the summer of 2003 — Toledo once again encountered growing social unrest, in the form of extensive protests by multiple workers’ syndicates (Sánchez). Initiated by the Education Trade Union — and later endorsed by members of the judicial system, health service providers and farmers — the nationwide manifestations against the government resulted in the imposition of a state of emergency on May 27th of that year (Sánchez). Consequentially — in a seemingly Fujimorian maneuver — four primary constitutional rights were suspended by the Toledo administration: personal freedom and security, inviolability of the home, freedom of assembly and freedom of transit. Moreover, the Peruvian armed forces took control of internal order across twelve districts of the country; aided by the national police, Peru’s armed forces embarked on an aggressive anti-manifestations campaign, resulting in massive detentions and the excessive use of force against protestors. Clashes betwixt protestors and the armed forces resulted in over 350 detentions, 117 injuries and a single death (Wright, 65). The militaristic nature of Toledo’s response to the nationwide protests paralleled the repressive ventures of the Fujimorian regime, and once again raised questions about the legitimacy of Toledo’s (seemingly excessive) use of regimes of exception. Hence, although Toledo’s regimes of exception were technically legal, they seemed to be unaligned with the supposed democratic nature of his government, thereby prompting even more social unrest.[7]

Whilst the aforementioned case studies of Toledo’s states of emergency gained the most coverage, the government’s imposition of long-term regimes of exception in several rural districts appeared to be the most blatant violation of citizen-centered governance. For example, Toledo maintained a regime of exception in the departments of Apurímac, Ayacucho, Huancavelica, Cusco and Junín from 2003 onwards (i.e. until the culmination of his term) (Wright, 69). The vague and improper motivations for the regime of exception were cause for even more concern: Toledo used the states of emergency to “deal with an unknown, unspecified ‘exceptional threat,’ ushering in a long-term repressive regime of exception through the back door” (Wright, 69). The lack of sufficient justification for the aforementioned regime of exception evidenced the fact that Toledo exploited states of emergency as political instruments.

Arguably, Toledo massaged the democratically valid use of regimes of exception, applying them solely to further his administration’s aims. Consequentially — given the similarities between Toledo’s policies and those of his dictatorial predecessor — Peruvians were quite underwhelmed by the change to citizen-centered governance, and were specifically discontent with Toledo’s role in the process. As a matter of fact — by the end of 2004 — only 10% of Peruvians approved of Toledo’s administration; said statistic is quite striking, given that Fujimori’s average approval rating consistently “held at around the 40% mark” (Carrión, 149). Thus, Peruvians’ discontent with the state of affairs under Toledo was quite noticeable; given the implied association between Toledo and the reinstitution of democracy, it appeared to be that Peruvians were also demonstrating their unhappiness with the alleged change to citizen-centered governance.[8] Having explored the reasons behind Peru’s failed transition to citizen-centered governance, we must now examine the lessons that can be learned from Peru’s case; indeed, we must determine which factors allowed Toledo to continue utilizing seemingly Fujimorian policies, thereby resulting in the failed application of civilian governance.

Lessons Learned: Constructing a Proper Transition to a Citizen-Centered Government

Given that Peru had just recently overthrown a brutal authoritarian regime, why would Toledo be allowed to rule in an apparently autocratic fashion (thereby undermining the change to citizen-centered governance)? The reason lies in the fact that — unlike some of Fujimori’s repressive ventures (i.e. death squads) — Toledo’s authoritarian pursuits were actually grounded on the Peruvian Constitution itself. Paradoxically, Peru’s supposedly democratic framework allowed — and arguably even facilitated — Toledo’s undemocratic decrees of regimes of exception.[9] Arguably, Peru’s unsuccessful change to citizen-centered governance may be due to the fact that the country never implemented citizen-centered governance in its totality (i.e. the change to civilian governance did not actually occur). Why? Specifically, the continued application of the Peruvian Constitution of 1993 — one that, given the vagueness of its emergency clauses, allowed for the imposition of autocratic decrees even within a supposedly democratic system — facilitated the Fujimorian applications of Toledo’s administration.

Particularly, Article 137 of the Peruvian 1993 Constitution — which refers to the suspension of citizen guarantees during emergencies — proved to be a breeding ground for the aforementioned authoritarian tendencies of the Toledo administration (Wright, 61). The problem lies not in the fact that the Peruvian Constitution includes an emergency clause — given that regimes of exception are an ordinary element of democratic systems — but that the article itself is quite vague, and thus apt for manipulation. The state of emergency is defined as “a breach of the peace or internal order, a catastrophe or serious circumstances that affect the life of the nation” (OAS). The phrases “internal order” and “serious circumstances that affect the life of the nation” both allow substantial wiggle room for the executive: indeed, Toledo justified the imposition of the Arequipa state of emergency due to the severe economic impact non-privatization could have on “the life of the nation” (Lama). Similarly, the administration’s reasoning for implementing a regime of exception to combat the nationwide protests in the summer of 2003 were that said manifestations threatened “internal order”; rather ironically, Toledo’s aggressive response — through the deployment of the Peruvian armed forces — inflamed the chaotic state of affairs even further.

Thus, what are the political implications that we can extract from Peru’s peculiar situation? Notably, we learned that a change to citizen-centered governance will falter if it is not substantiated by alterations to the very framework through which the country is governed (hence, the eradication of the institutions/decrees that formerly allowed autocratic rule). Toledo made an arguably grave mistake in maintaining the Peruvian Constitution of 1993, particularly its emergency clause. Given that Fujimori had already abused Article 137 to create “a well-established mechanism of repressive emergency politics” (Wright, 60) — thereby cementing the association between states of emergency and autocratic rule — it seems inappropriate for Toledo to have similarly recurred to regimes of exception in times of social unrest. In brief, the Peruvian case teaches us that — for true citizen-centered governance to be instituted — the entire system of governance must be ridden of all possibly authoritarian clauses. True civilian governance will not take hold if the mandating of autocratic decrees is still permitted.[10]

The regimes that followed Toledo’s presidency provide further proof that Peru’s institutional framework of governance has not changed in the post-Fujimorian era (hence, that the autocratic elements of Fujimori’s regime still influence Peruvian politics). Indeed, between 2000 and 2010, Peru’s executives declared over 115 regimes of exception; notably, the tendency appears to be increasing over time, as 15 states of emergency were declared in 2010, compared with only two in 2000 (Wright, 63). In a similar fashion to Toledo’s aforementioned impositions of states of emergency for repressive purposes (i.e. to deal with social protests), 32 declarations of regimes of exception — between 2000 and 2010 — have been “characterized by the suspension of certain civil liberties and/or the deployment of the military to deal with civilian unrest” (Wright, 64).

Therefore, the elementary lesson we can extract from the Peruvian case — in regards to what it takes to have a successful transition to citizen-centered governance — is that the change must occur on paper as well: true citizen-centered governance will not take hold as long as the institutional framework of governance is not ridden of its non-democratic elements (those which allow the autocratic exercise of power). In the specific case of Peru, this implies revamping Article 137 of the 1993 Constitution, to ensure that future administrations cannot exploit regimes of exception to facilitate their political aims. Peru will cease to be a “democratic regime that is far from fully consolidated and with clear systematic fault-lines” (Wright, 52) if and when the reformation of the 1993 Constitution’s Article 137 takes place.


[1] The ‘Grupo Colina’ anti-communist death squad was notorious for its egregious indecency. Fujimori himself was implicated in several of Grupo Colina’s atrocities, including both the ‘La Cantuta’ and ‘Barrios Altos’ massacres.

[2] Prior to exercising his role as head of the SIN, Montesinos Torres worked as a lawyer for several Colombian drug lords.

[3] Whilst rather unprecedented, Montesinos’ documentation was quite useful, as it allowed the head of the SIN to maintain strict overview over whether the details of his bribe contracts were being fulfilled or not. Moreover — unlike corrupt contracts in other arenas — Montesinos did have the capacity to enforce his bribe-induced transactions, given the nature of the organization he commanded (i.e. quite similar to the role the CIA plays in the United States).

[4] Interestingly, Peru’s Democratic Constitutional Congress rejected Fujimori’s resignation; the legislative body instead ‘deposed’ Fujimori (an evidently less honorable culmination to his tenure). Eventually, Fujimori was arrested and convicted, having returned to Peru in order to (attempt to) participate in the 2006 presidential election. Fujimori is currently imprisoned.

[5] The quality of Toledo’s regime was also hindered by a slowdown in economic growth (during the latter portions of Toledo’s term in office), and by the pervasiveness of corruption within Peru’s bureaucracy. Nevertheless, for the purposes of this paper, I shall focus on how Toledo’s semi-authoritarianism undermined the positive benefits of the change to citizen-centered governance.

[6] Hence, the lack of a truly comprehensive change to democratic rule proved to be the downfall of the Toledo presidency.

[7] Hence, whilst Toledo’s government was citizen-centered on paper, it did not appear to function as such in practice.

[8] It is necessary to qualify the transition from Fujimori’s dictatorship to Toledo’s tenure as an alleged change to citizen-centered governance, given the previously discussed continuation of authoritarian tendencies even during Toledo’s presidency.

[9] Toledo’s regimes of exception were ‘undemocratic’ in the sense that they were abusive, and would probably not be considered legal under most democratic systems.

[10] Whether explicitly, or implicitly — as in Toledo’s case: the president massaged the notion of states of emergency to create favorable outcomes for his administration.


Alejandro Toledo (2016). The Encyclopedia Britannica. Retrieved from: http://www.britannica.com/biography/Alejandro-Toledo

Carrión, Julio F. (2006). The Fujimori legacy: The rise of electoral authoritarianism in Peru. State College, PA: Penn State Press

Lama, Abraham (June 18, 2002). Peru: Protests, Unrest in Wake of Privatization. IPS News Service. Retrieved from: http://www.ipsnews.net/2002/06/peru-protests-unrest-spread-in-wake-of-privatisations/

McMillian, John & Zoido, Pablo (2004). How to Subvert Democracy: Montesinos in Peru. Journal of Economic Perspectives, 18 (4). Retrieved from: http://pricetheory.uchicago.edu/levitt/Papers/McMillanZoido2004.pdf

Organization of American States (OAS) (December 31, 1993). Constitución Política del Perú. Retrieved from: http://www.oas.org/juridico/spanish/per_res17.pdf

Salas, María E. (June 10, 2012). “Arequipazo”, la semilla de la protesta social en democracia. La República. Retrieved from: http://larepublica.pe/09-06-2012/arequipazo-la-semilla-de-la-protesta-social-en-democracia

Sánchez, Marco A. (June 4, 2003). Contundente protesta de la CGTP. La República. Retrieved from: http://larepublica.pe/04-06-2003/contundente-protesta-de-la-cgtp

Survivor Toledo (June 9, 2005). The Economist. Retrieved from: http://www.economist.com/node/4064642

Wright, Claire (2015). Emergency politics in the third wave of democracy: A study of regimes of exception in Bolivia, Ecuador, and Peru. Lexington, KY: Lexington Books.