Peru in political crisis amid mass protests over president’s impeachment

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The head of Peru’s congress demanded the “immediate resignation” of acting President Manuel Merino on Saturday after at least three people were killed during demonstrations in the capital Lima. Protesters were calling for the reinstatement of popular ex-president Martin Vizcarra, who was impeached on November 9.

At least three people were killed in Lima on Saturday after a group of hooded demonstrators threw rocks and fireworks at police, who responded with tear gas. Peru has seen repeated protests against right-winger Merino’s interim government since his centrist predecessor Vizcarra was ousted on Monday.

The protests are “probably the largest in Peru in 20 years”, Gino Costa, an MP and former interior minister, told the Financial Times.

Vizcarra was removed from office by parliament members accusing him of corruption and decrying what they saw as his mishandling of the Covid-19 pandemic. The ex-president described Merino’s new ministry as “illegal and illegitimate”.

Nine of the 18 members of Vizcarra’s cabinet resigned after the protesters’ deaths. MPs were to hold a special session on Sunday to discuss the possibility of Merino’s resignation. Luis Valdez – Merino’s successor as speaker of parliament after the latter acceded to the presidency – said he should “evaluate” the idea of resigning, in a statement to Peru’s CANAL N TV station.

‘Merino imposter’

Merino’s whereabouts were unknown on Sunday morning. “I’m calling him and I can't get through; I have no idea if he has resigned – I’m not a fortune teller,” right-wing Peruvian Prime Minister Antero Flores Araoz told the country’s RPP radio.

Prosecutors are investigating allegations that Vizcarra took more than $630,000 in bribes over construction projects when he was governor of the southern Moquegua province in 2014. He has denied the charges against him and – at present – has not been charged with any criminal offence.

Parliament members invoked a 19th century constitutional clause allowing them to remove a president for “moral incapacity”. After taking office, Merino described Vizcarra’s ousting as an “act of absolute responsibility”, calling him a “thief”, while saying that the Peruvian presidential election scheduled for April would go ahead as planned. After those polls, Merino added, he would leave power at the end of Vizcarra’s original mandate in July.

The Organisation of American States, an intergovernmental body, has not recognised Merino’s interim government and issued a statement expressing its “concern” the day Vizcarra was removed from power.

Demonstrators claim that his taking power was tantamount to a parliamentary coup – with Saturday’s protesters holding placards reading “Merino imposter” and “Merino, you are not my president”. One protester, Yessenia Medina, a student, told Associated Press earlier in the week: “I think they removed him out of their own personal interests rather than the good of the people.”

Viscarra’s anti-corruption agenda

Polls suggest that Vizcarra’s impeachment was unpopular among a majority of Peruvians, not just those who took to the streets: An Ipsos survey in September, during a first attempt in parliament to remove Viscarra over influence-peddling allegations, found that 79 percent thought he should finish his first term.

Vizcarra took office in 2018 with an anti-corruption agenda, two years after he was elected as vice president to Pedro Pablo Kuczynski, a former World Bank and IMF official. Vizcarra acceded to the presidency when Kuczynski resigned amid corruption allegations involving Odebrecht, a scandal-wracked Brazilian construction company.

Nobel Prize-winning novelist Mario Vargas Llosa, seen as being on the right of the political spectrum, praised Vizcarra upon his accession to the presidency, saying that his “credentials are pretty good” and that, so far, Vizcarra had “acted within the law”.

The centrepiece of Vizcarra’s agenda was a set of proposals aimed at tackling corruption, voted on in a December 2018 referendum: To ban private funding for political campaigns, to stop MPs from running for more than one term and to create an upper chamber of parliament. All but the last proposal were accepted.

Vargas Llosa predicted that if Vizcarra’s popularity increased significantly, the “Fujimorists in congress will probably make life difficult for him”. This refers to supporters of Alberto Fujimori, the right-wing Peruvian president from 1990 to 2000. Fujimori won popularity for boosting Peru’s economic growth and quashing the insurgencies of Shining Path and the MRTA – two Marxist guerrilla groups whose brutal revolutionary campaigns destabilised Peru throughout the 1980s.

But Fujimori was convicted to a 25-year sentence in 2009 for directing death squads in those counter-insurgency campaigns. The same year, he was convicted of paying the head of the Peru’s intelligence agency to bribe and put under surveillance journalists, businessmen and political opponents.

Corruption, ‘the bread and butter of Peruvian politics’

Keiko Fujimori, Alberto Fujimori's daughter, remains leader of the Fujimorist party Popular Front. She has been in and out of pre-trial detention since her 2018 arrest for money laundering in relation to the Odebrecht scandal.

In September 2019, Vizcarra dissolved parliament on the grounds that the Fujimorist majority was blocking his anti-corruption reforms – a constitutionally dubious move. Legislative elections the following January saw the Fujimorists’ vote share collapse to 7 percent – compared to 36 percent in 2016.

Yet many new MPs from an array of centrist parties that won big were similarly hostile towards Vizcarra.

“The Fujimorists are very much diminished; a busted flush at this stage,” said Colin Harding, editor of Latinform, a specialist publication on Latin America. “They’re not in a position to swing anything – rather, it was a coalition of small parties that got rid of Vizcarra.”

“His anti-corruption agenda was probably a big factor in that,” Harding continued. “Any attempt to root out corruption in Peru is a risky process because it’s the bread and butter of Peruvian politics – and Vizcarra was vulnerable because he had no party base, so there was nothing to protect him when congress turned against him.”

The state of play looks foggy ahead of the April presidential contest, supposing it goes ahead as planned. Vizcarra cannot stand due to term limits – although he could run again in any subsequent election.

At the same time, “one can’t see much of a future for Merino because he’s seen as very representative of the old politics”, Harding said. “The big political force right now is the street.”

Whoever attempts to lead Peru out of its political crisis, they will also have to contend with a Covid-19 crisis. Peru has the world’s highest coronavirus mortality rate per capita. It is also undergoing one of the worst economic shocks in hard-hit Latin America; the IMF estimates that Peru’s GDP will have plunged by 14 percent by the end of 2020.

It has been difficult to hand out economic aid, seeing as 70 percent of Peruvians work in the informal economy and 60 percent do not have a bank account. Vizcarra set an objective to ensure that all Peruvian adults have an account by 2021. But the proportion of people with an account increased from 38 percent before the pandemic to just 40 percent in August.

Vizcarra came under fire from his parliamentary antagonists over these health and economic crises. But he was quick to impose a lockdown at the outset of the pandemic – on March 15, a mere nine days after Peru’s first confirmed case, and before many European countries where the virus was already surging.

Given the deep-seated problems Covid-19 exposed in Peru, Harding said it would be difficult to argue that Vizcarra could have done much better: “He followed the advice and locked down quickly – but then of course as soon as you start relaxing rules, the virus comes back with a whirl. And Peru has a pretty ineffective public health system; hospitals are poorly equipped and they’re aren’t enough of them. Vizscarra probably did the best he could with what he had.”