By Laura Gamboa
Why Politicians and Parties Matter
Politicians and political parties are among the most despised in the Americas. According to LAPOP, Latin American mean trust for political parties is the lowest for any institution (including the military and the police). Meanwhile, “politician” is used as a shorthand for corrupt, spineless, and sold-out. This year, office-seekers in Colombia and the UScampaigned that they were “not politicians” and advertised that they did not belong to a particular party. Not all of them succeeded, but nobody rebutted them either. Politics is the only profession in which not having any experience, or a professional affiliation is something to brag about.
Democratic representation is a tricky business. In theory, voters hold elected officials to account, while politicians earnestly respond to their needs. Yet not all voters have the same interests, nor are those interests always in line with the public good. Even in the best of scenarios—where elected officials are not beholden to special interests or resort to practices like vote buying—representation is imperfect. Some of the issues citizens care about are either ignored or sacrificed, while negotiations water down what politicians initially campaigned to do. Either way, voters inevitably feel unsatisfied.
The problem, of course, is not the intrinsic characteristics of politicians or political parties. Indeed, imperfect representation is the nature of democratic politics. Unexperienced or “independent” office seekers cannot fix it. On the contrary they often aggravate it. Perú’s current crisis demonstrates how this occurs.
A Democracy Without Parties (or Politicians)
Perú is a “democracy without parties.” The party system collapsed in the 1990s and did not re-emerge once the country transitioned back to democracy in 2000. There were no incentives for it. Office seekers figured out they could build temporary shallow coalitions that allowed them to win office, without engaging in the long-term costly process of building or joining a disciplined well-rooted political party. Like other presidents in recent Peruvian history, Pedro Castillo came to power in 2021 with little to no experience in public office. His party, Perú Libre—like most other parties in Perú—was weak and inchoate. Inexperienced and without structured support in congress Castillo’s presidency was, from day one, an uphill battle.
Parties and experienced politicians are not only important, but essential to modern democracy. Strong parties that interact in stable and predictable ways are better able to structure political competition. They can not only aggregate different preferences in a cohesive agenda and more easily convey that agenda to voters, but they also generate stable coalitions to push the government’s agenda through congress.
Without that kind of organized disciplined support, Castillo was left to govern on his own. The new president, who had never been in public office before and came to power with a very slim margin (against a disloyal opposition), did not have the skills or the resources to forge the agreements required to do that.
Very few office holders in Perú could have. As stated by Rodrigo Barrenechea, in their distaste for “politics,” Peruvians have replaced career politicians for temporary office seekers with little experience or concern for a future career in politics. In a world where office holders are constantly replaced, there are no incentives to create the kind of long term agreements that produce good policy or protect co-partisans in other branches of power. Politics in Perú is, therefore, more of a retail business, where politicians strike short term deals with each other, making and unmaking coalitions fluidly.
A Failed Presidency
In that context, Castillo’s presidency was was a chronicle of a foretold death. Very early in his term, congress began to use constitutional hardball obstructing even the most minor requests from the executive. Only four months into his presidency congress tried to impeach the mandatary arguing “moral failures.” Though short in votes to approve this first impeachment,it kept trying. On December 7th, right before the fourth attempt to impeach him, Castillo decided to illegally close congress and restructure the judiciary. The self-coup was short-lived. In less than a day, Castillo had been removed from office and apprehended while his vice-president, Dina Boluarte, was sworn in as president.
Still, while Peru avoided a complete democratic breakdown, the quick response from congress and the judiciary was insufficient to resolve the situation that had prompted the constitutional crisis in the first place. The country has had six presidents in four years; it impeached (or almost impeached) two of them; and is in desperate need of new leadership and significant institutional reform. Neither the legislature nor the new executive appears to recognize that. Congress celebrated the impeachment as though it was a political victory and Boluarte came to power assuringPeruvians she would remain in office until 2026. The display of arrogance and disconnect enraged Peruvians who responded with protests in the streets demanding (among other things) early elections.
An Ongoing Crisis
The government’s response to their requests has been abysmal. Without political parties and experienced politicians, it is very hard to aggregate the diverse set of preferences that plague Perú’s political arena and formulate practical responses to it. The political elites in charge have been unable to negotiate a pathway that could grant the protesters’ most basic demand. On December 12, Boluarte finally stated she would push for early elections but, congress failed to pass legislation that would have allowed to move them ahead of time. It was a waste of an opportunity and the crisis remains in stasis without a path towards a resolution.
In the meantime, in response to increasing discontent,, the president has given the security forces free reign to repress the protesters. By December 19, hundreds of people had been injured and at least 25 had lost their lives. The situation is urgent, yet, there is no end in sight. Without political parties or savvy politicians it is hard to find a path forward. It is not a question of whether the solution agreed is appropiate or not. It is a question of whether there will be a solution at all.
For some, Perú might seem like an outlier. It is not. As mentioned above, anti-politics feelings plague the Americas. There is a widespread disregard for “politics” and “politicians” and countries across the region have seen the rise of mavericks, outsiders and independents to the executive. As appealing as their discourse might be, the crisis in the Andean country is a stark reminder of the importance of politicians and political parties to govern our very complex societies.
About the Author
Laura Gamboa is an Assistant Professor at the University of Utah. She recently published the book Resisting Backsliding: Opposition Strategies Against the Erosion of Democracy. She has published past articles in Journal of Democracy, Comparative Politics, Political Research Quarterly, Electoral Politics, Journal of Elections, Public Opinion & Parties, and Terrorism and Political Violence. Follow her on Twitter @l_gamboag.
Democracy Paradox Podcast
Democracy Paradox is part of the Amazon Affiliates Program and earns commissions on items purchased from links to the Amazon website. All links are to recommended books discussed in the podcast or referenced in the blog.