Peru - Merino’s mistakes lead to a very short term in office

Peru’s interim president resigned less than a week after a power grab gave him the presidency.

Peru doesn’t have a president this Monday morning. Manuel Merino resigned. Peru’s Congress accepted the resignation and then failed to name a successor. They’ll vote again this afternoon. Whoever takes over should learn from the mistakes made by Merino.

Merino’s three mistakes

No plan. Manuel Merino was not an accidental president who can be forgiven for not being prepared. The head of the Congress schemed for months to take over the presidency. Somehow, he didn’t have a plan for what to do once he became president. He struggled to find cabinet members. He didn’t attempt international outreach. Any president who comes to power with questionable legitimacy needs to act decisively. Merino floundered for the entire six day term of his presidency in spite of months of preparation.

Failure to engage protesters. Merino tried to dismiss the protests as unrelated to his rise to the presidency. He claimed protesters were angry at the country’s economic situation. He was unwilling to engage the protesters and made no attempt to reach out to civil society groups (even Nicolas Maduro pretends to negotiate). His unwillingness to negotiate or even acknowledge the protesters’ anger added to their rage. It also left the interim president with few options other than repression.

Police repression. “Police violence escalates protests.” If you’ve been reading this newsletter over the past two years, you’ve probably read that a dozen times. Apparently Merino is not a subscriber. Without a governing plan and unwilling to engage protesters, Merino ordered the police to repress the protests with increasing force over the past week. The police violence increased significantly on Friday night, with reports of police aiming to injure protesters. Anger drew larger crowds on Saturday. When two protesters were killed by gunfire on Saturday night, most of Merino’s cabinet resigned. There are reports the military commanders refused to meet with him on Sunday morning. 

There are some who will say Merino was doomed from the moment he took office. I disagree. The violence on Friday and Saturday night was not inevitable. Even after the violence on Friday night, Merino was still in control on Saturday morning and could have begun changing his approach to the protests. He could have pulled back the police, announced some sort of dialogue process, and engaged the international community. Instead, on Saturday morning, he hid from public view and ordered an escalation of police repression. It was exactly the wrong decision.

Now Merino is gone. He’ll probably be prosecuted. That’s what happens to former Peruvian presidents. 

The president resigned; the police did not

Unlike Merino, the police who engaged in that repression and violence are still in place. The population’s trust in the police force has certainly declined amid the violence. 

That is a big challenge for the next presidents of Peru. It impacts their ability to protect critical infrastructure, prosecute street crime and go after corruption and drug trafficking. The human rights abuses that occurred during these protests should be prosecuted, but there will be pressure by forces inside the police to avoid an investigation. 

Overhauling the police force takes time, resources and attention. It won’t be at the top of the priority list given all the other challenges the country faces at the moment. 

The next president faces a tough balancing act between the population and the Congress

The Congress needs to vote on an interim president from among its members. Last night’s vote, in which abstentions prevented any president from being chosen, demonstrates the challenge of creating a coalition that allows someone acceptable to a majority of the Congress to ascend to the presidency.

Though unlikely, it’s also possible that former President Martin Vizcarra returns depending on how the Constitutional Court rules this week. 

If Congress chooses the next executive, the conventional wisdom is that the choice needs to be a member who voted against the removal of Vizcarra last week. However, those who voted against Vizcarra’s removal are not trusted by many of the 105 members of Congress who voted in favor.

The next president should avoid Merino’s three mistakes. Be decisive and have a plan upon taking office. Engage with civil society. Don’t rely on police repression.

Even doing so, the next president, like the two presidents who were removed in the past week, will still find himself or herself caught between a very corrupt Congress and a population that is angry about that corruption. Attempts to placate the population by implementing anti-corruption initiatives will be met by resistance within the Congress, which has the ability to significantly hamper the president’s agenda or even threaten removal yet again. Attempts to give the Congress what it wants (immunity from prosecution, reelection, and a compliant court system), will face off against an angry population that has proven capable of successfully pushing a president from power.

The best agenda for the next president would be 1) fight the pandemic, 2) stimulate the economy and 3) get to the April elections. Any overreach by an interim president with limited legitimacy into long term economic or anti-corruption decisions will drive controversy and potential instability.

Even after the April elections, many of the same problems involving a divide between the population and the Congress will likely remain. As I wrote in September, “It’s safe to say that the least likely scenario for the next president is a stable few years with no political upheaval.”

Thanks for reading

I’m sending the newsletter a bit earlier than usual because this is a quickly changing story.

In addition to Peru, I’m following the news about Hurricane Iota carefully and all of you should be as well. Building on top of the damage of Eta, this hurricane has the potential to be one of the worst disasters Central America has faced in decades.

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