The battle between the executive and the legislature is testing the country’s institutional resilience.
Peruvian President Martín Vizcarra has dissolved Congress under promises to combat corruption among the governing class.
– Peru’s ongoing political power struggle has led to a constitutional crisis
– The country’s democratic institutions are increasingly under strain to secure the rule of law and effective separation of powers
– Vizcarra’s popularity has soared due to his efforts to fight corruption, but the success of his reforms are yet to be seen
Upon rising to the presidency in March 2018, Martín Vizcarra was immediately met with challenges from the opposition-controlled legislature. After Vizcarra held a referendum last year to push through a package of anti-corruption measures, Congress has blocked or weakened nearly every proposal for reform. This included the president’s attempt to clean up campaign financing, reform the party system and create an independent body that could strip congressmen of their immunity. Tensions came to a head on 30 September, when Vizcarra controversially dissolved Congress with executive power derived from a broad interpretation of the constitution. The legality of the move was questioned and Congress struck back by suspending the president and appointing Vice President Mercedes Aráoz to take his place. Chaos ensued as legislators refused to relinquish their positions and confusion spread as to which move was in fact legal.
Citing a breakdown in the constitutional order, Aráoz resigned from the position in less than two days and the armed forces and police have publicly backed Vizcarra. Vizcarra has retained control of the executive branch, but Peru’s Supreme Court is yet to rule on the legality of the president’s move. The country is now set to hold Congressional elections in January. It is unclear whether the dissolution will serve to clean up corruption or damage Peru’s democracy as the country’s frail democratic institutions are being increasingly put to the test.
THE FIGHT AGAINST CORRUPTION
Vizcarra has called for new Congressional elections on 26 January, claiming that a new legislature is the only way to break the political stalemate, while the opposition argues he has carried out a coup. His most ardent critics have equated his actions to those of former president Alberto Fujimori’s 1992 ‘self-coup’ and decade of autocracy. This comparison is likely overstated — Vizcarra has stated he is not seeking reelection and the Supreme Court and other political bodies continue to function normally. In the absence of Congress, a 27-member ‘permanent committee’ will remain as a check on executive power.
Vizcarra’s actions have been highly popular, as 96% of Peruvians view government corruption as a serious problem in the country. Specifically, more than 80% perceive that all or most members of Congress are corrupt. Vizcarra has pledged to use his presidency to fight the corruption that has been festering in Peru’s political system — all four of his immediate predecessors are currently under investigation. In January, he announced that the country’s slogan for 2019 would be the Year to Fight Against Corruption and Impunity. However, he maintains that Congress has fought him every step of the way.
The power struggle has dominated Peruvian politics since the general election in 2016, which resulted in Pedro Pablo Kuczynski, an economist and former investment banker, narrowly defeating populist Keiko Fujimori, daughter of one of the country’s most controversial leaders. Both candidates expressed similar free-market views; however, unable to accept defeat, Fujimori’s Popular Force party (FP) — which won the majority in Congress — set out to paralyze Kuczynski’s government. Corruption allegations soon cut short both leaders’ ambitions. Fujimori was imprisoned and Kuczynski was forced to resign under threat of impeachment — both due to suspicious dealings with Odebrecht, a Brazilian construction company accused of bribing governments across Latin America. This allowed the unexpected rise of then-vice president Vizcarra to the presidency; thereafter, the feud between the legislature and the executive continued to grow.
The tipping point was Congress’s nomination of new judges to the country’s Constitutional Tribunal, which ignored the president’s calls to reform the system. Vizcarra’s supporters viewed the move as an effort by the opposition to pad the court to rule in their favour in the ongoing struggle with the president and to secure Fujimori’s release from prison. The constitution states that the president may dissolve Congress if the legislature issues two votes of no-confidence in his government. One occurred under Kuczynski, and Vizcarra has claimed the second came from Congress’s dismissal of his bill to reform the judicial appointment process. Constitutional scholars remain divided as to whether the dissolution was justified, but as of this writing, the decision stands.
WHAT’S AT STAKE
Vizcarra’s determination to fight corruption has made him Peru’s most popular leader in over three decades. According to a poll by Lima-based Datum Internacional, the president’s approval rating rose from 52% to 82% following the dissolution of Congress. However, with the constitution in question, there is a lot of stake. Peru has stood out from many of its Latin American neighbors as a beacon of democracy, with impressive economic growth and a relatively stable political system. However, the increasing power struggle along with recent events have left scholars questioning whether this the end of Peruvian exceptionalism.
One of the reforms Vizcarra implemented earlier this year will ban legislators from serving consecutive terms in Congress. While this could weed out politicians using corrupt methods to remain in office, it will also deprive the new Congress of experienced legislators. As instability has characterised the political sphere in recent years, untested congressmen may not be well-suited to make important policy decisions. Term limits will minimise expertise and automatically kick out effective lawmakers as well as those who may be corrupt.
There is an increasing risk that shaky politics will harm the economy. Peru’s ‘economic miracle’ appears to be fading away as growth has slowed sharply since 2013. Economists had predicted a gradual recovery this year but this is less likely in the face of a continued political crisis. Peru’s largest business organisation, Confiep, has criticised the president’s dismissal of Congress as a threat to democracy and an increase in uncertainty that will thwart one of Latin America’s strongest economies. Vizcarra’s questionable interpretation of the Constitution and exercise of presidential power could set a dangerous precedent for future leaders whose intentions may be far worse. This could potentially lead to autocracy and severely threaten Peru’s democracy.
The root of the instability can largely be traced to the Odebrecht scandal, which erupted among Peru’s political elite in 2016. Multiple mayors and every living former president have faced investigations into illicit dealings with the company. This shattered trust in the government and fuelled Vizcarra’s drive to reform the political system. The scandal has also wreaked havoc throughout Latin America as the region has taken up a war against corruption. Odebrecht investigations have undermined governments in Brazil, Ecuador, Colombia, Venezuela, Panama and Mexico. The anti-corruption push has established new legal tools including specialised investigators and preventative prison —Keiko Fujimori has been held for 11 months without charge — which has been controversial. There has been push back against anti-corruption measures, challenging the excesses and credibility of what some see as a witch-hunt. Fujimori’s fate and the result of reforms in Peru will likely have a spillover effect in the region.
Peru’s Supreme Court is expected to rule on the legality of the dissolution of Congress in the coming months. If the move is not overturned, new elections in January will be important to shape the future of Peru’s political system. Vizcarra appears to have the upper hand, but tensions remain high. The Court verdict will weigh heavily on the country, determining whether Peru will return to constitutional order or slip further into crisis.