Peru's constitutional crisis - 1 October 2019

Vizcarra is winning the institutional battle over Peru's presidency

President Martin Vizcarra dissolved Peru’s Congress and called for new legislative elections in January 2020. The Congress then refused to leave session, suspended Vizcarra from the presidency, and named Vice President Mercedes Araoz as acting president. Here are five reasons why Vizcarra is winning the institutional battle.

1. Vizcarra’s move probably has constitutional legitimacy.

Peru’s president has the constitutional right to dissolve Congress after the Congress expresses no confidence in the president twice in the same term. Back in early August, commenting about Vizcarra’s proposal for early elections, I wrote:

“Vizcarra holds an ace up his sleeve in that he can call another confidence vote in the Congress and call new Congressional elections if that confidence vote fails. If he ties the confidence vote to the electoral reform proposal, it would force new Congressional elections either way.”

Technically, Vizcarra called the confidence vote this week over the selection of judges to the constitutional court rather than his own early election proposal (probably a smart move from a constitutional perspective). 

It’s not clear that Vizcarra followed procedure 100% to the letter in how he handled the confidence vote this week and his opponents in the legislature and judiciary are likely to highlight any minor misstep in the process. As Michael Baney writes in this excellent Twitter thread on Peruvian politics, it’s also constitutionally questionable because the first no-confidence vote occurred under former President Kuczynski, who was forced to resign before Congress impeached him in March 2018. In spite of the questions, Vizcarra is still generally correct that he has the authority to do what he’s doing and Peruvians know it.

2. Vizcarra has public opinion on his side.

While the president’s approval rating dropped just below 50% last month, he remains the most popular politician in the country. His anti-corruption reform proposals and call for early elections are even more popular than he is as a leader. His push for a less corrupt judiciary has strong support, meaning the public backs his position on the constitutional court positions and the confidence vote in Congress. Meanwhile, Peru’s Congress is hated and viewed as corrupt by the vast majority of the Peruvian public.

3. Vizcarra says he wants to leave power early.

One reason Vizcarra has public opinion on his side is that he has made a case that his reforms are not intended to advance his own power. Usually, when Latin American presidents try to rewrite the political rules, they do so to maintain power beyond their term. Vizcarra has said on numerous occasions he doesn’t plan to run again and his proposed reform would have him leave office a year early. 

Even though I believe Vizcarra is making a play for long term power and influence, the image of a president trying to limit his own power has given him some political capital.

4. The military backs Vizcarra.

Peru’s military leaders issued a strong statement backing Vizcarra last night just hours after the controversy erupted. It is not ideal for Latin American political controversies to be decided by the military, but Vizcarra’s tweet last night shows that he understands how power politics is sometimes played. The military is likely responding to public opinion and the general distrust of a corrupt Congress. Vizcarra has had an average relationship with the military so far, giving the officers no major reasons to oppose him.

5. Peru has a constitutional crisis, but not an emergency.

Peru is in a constitutional crisis with two presidents, but it’s not Venezuela. Peru doesn’t have security forces torturing and killing thousands of people while the economy crashes, the population starves and millions flee as refugees. 

The political fights within and among the institutions have been peaceful as have the protests in the capital. While members of Congress who have faced corruption charges claim political persecution, there has been an institutional process that has granted them plenty of due process. 

That lack of emergency is key to keeping Peru’s military on the sidelines and the ongoing institutional dispute peaceful.

Even though he’s winning, Vizcarra should handle this carefully.

Given that the situation is not a humanitarian or democratic emergency, it would best be solved by dialogue rather than institutional hardball. Even if nearly everyone agrees that Vizcarra is better than his political opponents, Peru’s president should have some checks to his authority. Latin American history is full of bad things happening after politicians justified taking additional powers due to popular opinion or the illegitimacy of their opponents.

Peru’s Congress, as corrupt as it is, has a point that Vizcarra has been using his anti-corruption agenda to move public opinion and bully the other institutions that are supposed to be checks on the president’s power. Dissolving Congress is within the president’s power, but that power comes from a Fujimori-written constitution after Peru’s former president rolled in the tanks to forcibly remove his legislative opponents. It’s not the best example to follow. 

The president’s quick turn to the military to legitimize his position versus the Congress and his own vice president can also be considered troubling given the importance of keeping the security forces out of the civilian political dispute.

Nobody wants an extended crisis, but an extended institutional crisis solved through dialogue in Peru is better than a quick resolution that gives the presidency too much power and/or sets up the country for a future crisis that will be far worse.

Thanks for reading!

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