A ‘coup’ in Peru
Public anger spilled out onto the streets of Lima and other Peruvian cities in protest at the impeachment of President Martín Vizcarra in what has been widely hailed as a coup d’état organized by the former leader of Congress, Manuel Merino. Merino formally donned the presidential sash on 10 November, following Vizcarra’s resignation a day earlier.
The UK-based Peru Support Group has condemned the move as stretching constitutional norms to justify Merino’s takeover. It claims the ‘coup’ has been perpetrated by a Congress in which corrupt influences are well represented.
Vizcarra was voted out by a large majority in Congress following unproven allegations of corruption on his part when provincial governor in the southern region of Moquegua between 2011 and 2014. A previous attempt to dislodge him in September, also orchestrated by Merino, failed to win sufficient parliamentary support.
The impeachment was based on Vizcarra’s supposed ‘permanent moral incapacity’, one of the justifications for removing a president under the Peruvian constitution. The validity of this is questioned by constitutional lawyers, and the Constitutional Tribunal (which has the last word in interpreting constitutional norms) was due to define more precisely what the phrase means when Congress launched the latest impeachment proceedings.
Since he became president, Vizcarra sought to root out corruption from public life, setting himself on a collision course with many in the Congress, themselves tainted with corruption charges. This finally led him to use his presidential prerogative to dissolve the legislature in September 2019 and call fresh elections. Held last January, these did little to resolve the political impasse.
Vizcarra’s term of office was due to end on 28 July next year when Peru celebrates its bicentennial as an independent republic. He succeeded Pedro Pablo Kuczynski, an international financier, as vice-president in March 2018. Kuczynski stood down under the threat of impeachment over allegations of corruption when a minister during the government of Alejandro Toledo (2001-06). Lacking a party of his own, Vizcarra was always at the mercy of party members in Congress.
Peru has been wracked in recent years over corruption scandals involving Brazilian construction companies routinely bribing presidents and senior politicians. Toledo currently awaits extradition from the United States over bribes he allegedly received. President Alan García (2006-11) committed suicide in 2019 as he was about to be arrested over corruption charges. President Ollanta Humala (2011-16) has been in preventative detention over illicit presidential campaign donations, and Kuczynski is under house arrest.
Opposition leaders have also been tarred by the same brush, notably Keiko Fujimori, the daughter of disgraced former president Alberto Fujimori (1990-2000). She has also been in jail now but plans to stand as a candidate in next April’s presidential elections. Alberto Fujimori was sentenced to 25 years in prison over corruption and human rights crimes during his decade in office.
The charges levelled against Vizcarra have yet to be investigated. They originate from witnesses applying for lenient treatment under plea-bargaining agreements. They concern bribes he allegedly received for the construction of an irrigation scheme in Moquegua as well as for a local hospital there. He denies the accusations.
In introducing far-reaching reforms designed to cleanse the political and judicial systems, he won strong public support, enjoying unusually high popularity ratings for a Peruvian president. At the time of the attempted impeachment back in September, 85 per cent of those polled supported him completing his term in office and then to face the judicial charges against him. Under Peruvian law the president, as well as members of Congress, enjoy immunity from prosecution whilst still exercising public office.
Congress, by contrast, is widely reviled by public opinion for failing to represent the interests of voters. Peru’s party system collapsed in the 1990s, removing a key link between civil society and the state.
Merino is now the third president in under five years. He has promised to hold the presidential and congressional elections scheduled for 11 April, 2021. If he respects this timetable, his mandate will be short. The president of the Council of Ministers, Peru’s cabinet chief, is Antero Flores Araoz, a deeply conservative figure. His cabinet will be announced shortly, and is expected to reflect the interests of Peru’s business class.
As he left the presidential palace, Vizcarra questioned both the legality and legitimacy of the new government.
Peru meanwhile has been hard hit by the Covid-19 pandemic with deaths totalling almost 35,000. The country has the third-highest deaths per capita in the world.
John Crabtree is a research associate at the Latin American Centre in the University of Oxford. He is the author of various books on contemporary Peru, most recently (with Francisco Durand) Peru: Elite Power and Political Capture, Zed Books, 2017.
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