Discover more from Latin America Risk Report
Peru - Vizcarra removed from office
Manuel Merino, the head of the Congress, orchestrated a vote that will allow him to ascend to the presidency.
Last night, 105 out of 130 members of Peru’s Congress voted to remove President Martin Vizcarra. The now former president is accused of accepting bribes from a construction company while he was previously governor.
Manuel Merino, the head of Congress, will take over as president today. Merino was definitely more organized this time than during the September impeachment attempt that he fumbled.
Two weeks ago, I wrote that 78% of Peruvians want Vizcarra to finish his term (which ends next July). Vizcarra still has over 50% approval in most public opinion polls. Merino has only 21% approval.
The impeachment process is seen by many as illegitimate
Though everyone knew that the vote was scheduled, the removal of Vizcarra still appeared to take many within Peru’s political system by surprise. Many politicians and media outlets portrayed the move as illegitimate. George Forsyth, the leading presidential candidate, called it a “coup in disguise.” Leftwing presidential candidate Veronika Mendoza called for Peruvians to take to the streets to defend democracy. The Instituto de Defensa Legal (IDL) called it a congressional coup d'état.
Whether or not it was constitutionally legitimate (it did follow the written rules though perhaps not the spirit of the law), it should be considered a power grab by Merino. It doesn’t look good when the head of Congress plots his own ascension to the presidency. Merino, if he chooses to, can also keep his seat in Congress. It’s constitutional but would violate the idea of checks and balances and would be a further blow to Peruvian democracy.
Merino faces immediate governance problems
The new president assumes power under a cloud of illegitimacy and with the support of less than a quarter of the population. He is not fully trusted by the military leadership. Speaking with various analysts in Peru, there is an assumption that Merino is a dirty politician with plenty of skeletons in his closet and special interests financing him, though nobody would go on the record with evidence of specific corruption charges.
Perhaps the only governance problem Merino doesn’t face is the fact that he appears to have put together a congressional coalition that supports him. However, the congress has numerous competing factions and keeping them all happy is not going to be simple.
Those power dynamics mean Merino is likely to make an attempt to spend his way to legitimacy, paying back those who supported him in Congress with public works projects and jobs for their districts.
Will elections be held on schedule next year?
The Peruvian constitution calls for the Congress to set new elections if a president is removed and the head of Congress is forced to take over. With elections already set for April and facing a global pandemic, the logical move to just allow the elections to take place as scheduled. Merino said elections have already been called and will be held on time.
However, rumors are already floating around that Merino plans to postpone the elections, claiming the pandemic forces him to, and cling to power beyond his already weak mandate. That seems unlikely, but it is the source of a potential major crisis should the new president consider it.
Vizcarra walks away with power and influence
After some speculation over whether he would fight the impeachment attempt, Vizcarra accepted the decision and said history will judge the Congress. He also implied additional information will come out in the future about how the vote occurred, hinting at some form of bribery by Merino in exchange for votes.
Take a moment to realize how remarkable that is. Vizcarra likely has the support of the public and the military to fight this thing and cling to power. He’s not going that route. Why not? Maybe he’s so committed to the constitution that he does not want that fight. Or perhaps he recognizes that between the pandemic and a crashing economy, there has never been a better moment to graciously step back and prepare for the next fight while some other guy fails.
As former president, it is likely that Vizcarra will face an investigation and potential prosecution. Perhaps the evidence that is publicized will tarnish his image. However, for now, he remains the only politician in the country with a majority positive approval rating. He has a public reputation as an anti-corruption advocate and someone who successfully took on the previous Fujimori-led Congress.
Vizcarra doesn’t have a major party organization, but he does have the opportunity to influence and play kingmaker in the coming elections should he choose to do so.
None of this is good for Peru’s democracy
Much of what I wrote in September still applies. The combination of continued corruption allegations against major politicians, a very weak party system, and the executive-legislative battles that take down one or both sides mean Peru’s political situation will remain volatile for the years to come.
Thanks for reading
Removal for moral failings is not technically “impeachment” under Peru’s constitution. I’m still using the word because it’s my newsletter and not a law journal.
If you want to be added to the newsletter distribution list, please enter your email at https://boz.substack.com/ or email me at email@example.com and I will add you.