Chela Ordoñez travelled nearly 1,000km from Peru’s northern Piura province to the capital Lima when she heard President Pedro Castillo had been arrested after trying to shut down Congress and impose a state of emergency.
The home tutor gathered with a crowd of other supporters on Thursday afternoon outside a police base on the outskirts of Lima, where Castillo was being held following his failed power grab the day before. “We are here because we are poor,” she said, as a busload of other supporters arrived.
“Castillo is the only president of Peru that has represented us,” said Pilar Pillaca, another demonstrator.
The drama of the past few days reflects Peru’s bitter social and political divisions and signals the depth of the challenge facing his successor.
Dina Boluarte, who served as Castillo’s vice-president, was sworn in as the Andean country’s first female head of state on Wednesday afternoon following Castillo’s ousting and must now try to forge a majority in the highly fragmented Congress and heal the rifts splitting the country.
Many Peruvians saw the hard left Castillo’s move, hours before Congress was to vote on his impeachment, as a brazen attempt to subvert Peruvian democracy after 16 months of chaotic rule. His tenure saw more than 70 ministers come and go, while prosecutors have opened multiple corruption investigations into him and his family. Congress has tried twice previously to impeach him.
Most in the business community were relieved to see Castillo, who took office in July 2021, out of office, while many of Peru’s newspapers cheered his downfall. “Democracy holds,” read the headline of an editorial in El Comercio.
But for Ordoñez, Pillaca and thousands demonstrating across the country, the former primary school teacher from rural Chota province is a victim of persecution by a corrupt Congress and elite.
Last month, polling by the Institute of Peruvian Studies found Castillo’s approval rating was 19 per cent in Lima and 33 per cent in urban areas nationwide but 45 per cent in rural areas.
A career lawyer and relative political newcomer, Boluarte has promised to put together a cabinet that represents Peru’s diversity and to rebuild trust in politics — a tall order in a country that has gone through six presidents in just over four years.
“What she could do is name a centrist prime minister and give cabinet posts in the productive sector to the centre-right and the social posts to the centre-left,” said Rodolfo Rojas, a partner at the Sequoia political risk consultancy in Lima. “That would generate a minimum consensus so she can govern in the immediate future.”
Boluarte will also have to steward the economy in the world’s second-largest copper producer. After nearly two decades of steady growth it began to flag under Castillo’s rule and in October rating agency Fitch revised the country’s outlook from “stable” to “negative”. The following month, Castillo’s third and final finance minister, Kurt Burneo, acknowledged that political dysfunction was hurting the business climate.
Peru’s sovereign bond prices and the sol were knocked by Castillo’s attempt to dissolve parliament on Wednesday but quickly recouped their losses after lawmakers voted to impeach him by a 101-6 margin. The country’s 2031 sovereign bond traded at roughly 86 cents on the dollar on Friday, close to where it began the week, having dipped below 85 cents on Wednesday.
Boluarte on Thursday ruled out new elections in the immediate future, saying at a news conference that her government had a mandate to fulfil Castillo’s term, which ends in 2026. The last president to serve a full term in Peru was Ollanta Humala, who left office in 2016. “I know that there are voices that are calling for early elections,” she said. “That is democracy.”
Castillo remains under arrest and has been charged with rebellion. A judge on Thursday, considering him a flight risk, ordered that he be held until Tuesday for additional investigations.
Most of his cabinet resigned immediately in protest at his attempted power grab and the army and police did not back him, leading him to flee the presidential palace with his family.
Mexico president Andrés Manuel López Obrador has said Castillo called him en route to the Mexican embassy to request asylum before being intercepted by police on Wednesday afternoon. A fellow leftist leader, López Obrador, said it was “regrettable” that Castillo had faced “confrontation and hostility” from Peru’s political and economic elites since the start of his presidency.
In central Lima, a few blocks from the town hall where Castillo was initially held, hundreds of supporters gathered at the Plaza de San Martín. Some carried banners protesting his innocence and calling for the closure of Congress.
Passers-by went about their affairs, unbothered by the turmoil engulfing their nation’s politics. “It’s not the first time we’ve seen a president come and go,” said an elderly man as he scanned the front pages of the day’s newspapers, most celebrating or decrying Castillo’s downfall.
But as the crowd grew into a few thousand and marched towards Congress, Peru’s divisions were visible.
“Everyone should be celebrating because we’ve brought down a corrupt man,” José Varón, sporting the shirt of the Peruvian football team, shouted at the protesters. “You’re all wrong.”
Additional reporting by Tommy Stubbington in London