In Peru, an unprecedented political crisis has unfolded quickly in the midst of rising death tolls and widespread economic damage from the coronavirus pandemic. On Nov. 9, 80 percent of the Peruvian Congress voted to oust President Martín Vizcarra for alleged corruption. Congressional Speaker Manuel Merino became interim president on Nov. 10.
The move was deeply unpopular: An opinion poll released by the nonpartisan think tank IEP on Nov. 18 showed 77 percent of Peruvians approved of Vizcarra and 91 percent rejected his removal.
Thousands of young Peruvians across the country turned out to protest a government they considered unlawful and illegitimate. The protests continued until Merino resigned on Nov. 14. The following day, legislators appointed their colleague Francisco Sagasti as interim president, giving Peru its third president in just over a week.
How could Peru fall into such a political crisis? My research suggests weak political institutions and an anti-democratic Peruvian political elite are driving the country’s constitutional calamity.
Peru’s parties lack popular appeal
Peru has a fragmented party system, with more than 20 parties competing in the next presidential election, scheduled for April. Currently, nine parties have seats in Congress, but none hold more than 20 percent of the seats. According to the Latin American Public Opinion Project, about 90 percent of the population do not identify with any particular party.
Most of the current parties act as gatekeepers of the political system, using their current positions to raise entry barriers for new parties. Parties shielded their leaders from judicial investigations, for instance, and blocked reforms designed to provide oversight of party finances and prevent prosecuted politicians from running as candidates.
Political scientists Steven Levitsky and Mauricio Zavaleta also note that some parties are shells — they offer themselves as vehicles for politicians with some popularity or ambitions, regardless of whether their political positions align.
For Peruvian voters, erratic party behavior can make it virtually impossible to pin down policy positions or ideology. This leaves much of population with little confidence that elected officials represent their interests. According to IEP, only 3 percent of Peruvian adults feel represented by Congress. This suggests growing numbers of Peruvians no longer believe in the legitimacy of the main Peruvian parties.
Politicians don’t commit fully to democratic norms
How politicians behave toward democracy matters for a political system’s survival. Political scientists Scott Mainwaring and Anibal Pérez-Liñan show that when politicians value democracy for its own sake — not merely as an instrument to achieve policy goals — they are more willing to defend it.
These sorts of democratic commitments appear to be under severe stress in Peru. For example, the country’s political system allows the Congress to remove cabinet members, impeach the president or vacate the presidency when the president dies, resigns or is declared morally or physically incapable. And under exceptional circumstances, Peru’s constitution empowers the president to dissolve Congress.
This is heavy constitutional weaponry, and politicians are meant to deploy these measures only in extreme circumstances. But such self-restraint against constitutional hardball — legal moves that nonetheless violate the country’s political norms — seems in short supply. Since 2016, Peru’s Congress and executive have deployed those powers to remove elected officials more often than any previous government.
The narrow election results in 2016 exacerbated these tensions by creating a highly divided government. Pedro Pablo Kuczynski won the presidency, but Keiko Fujimori’s party obtained a supermajority in Congress. Fujimori was reluctant to concede the election. She did not call or visit the president-elect, as was the tradition in previous transitions. She addressed the nation recognizing the loss, but also raised concerns about uncounted votes harming the credibility of electoral organizations.
Legislators from Fujimori’s party then deployed baseless allegations to remove cabinet members. A few months after the election, they launched impeachment proceedings against Kuczynski, who resigned in 2018. Vice President Martín Vizcarra took office and, after several clashes, dissolved Congress in 2019 and called for a legislative election. That new Congress, in turn, just removed Vizcarra from office.
Proponents of impeaching Vizcarra pointed out that he was under investigation for alleged corruption. However, critics argued that Congress stretched a constitutional provision intended to vacate the presidency only in cases of death, or mental or moral incapacity. That move opened a Pandora’s box: Now, anytime a coalition in Congress has the necessary votes, lawmakers will be tempted to remove the president.
A month before this current crisis, during the Congress’s first attempt to remove Vizcarra, he asked the Constitutional Court to clarify if the Congress could use the “moral incapacity” constitutional clause at its discretion. On Nov. 20, the court decided not to rule on the matter, effectively wasting the opportunity to close that box.
What are the prospects for reform?
Peruvians, especially younger generations, have shown their willingness to protest the country’s prevailing political practices. Likewise, some parties and Congress members fought Merino’s attempt to seize power.
Parties such as the center-right Partido Morado voted against Vizcarra’s removal and their members of Congress went to police stations to help imprisoned protesters. From the left, Congresswomen Rocio Silva Santisteban and Mirtha Vasquez (the new head of the Congress) voted against Vizcarra’s removal (in opposition to their party) and helped to resolve the crisis. These actions suggest that some representatives are listening to their constituencies and are trying to distance themselves from the ruling elite that caused this crisis.
With Peru’s general election just five months away, the immediate political crisis appears to have been resolved. But Peru’s political future is fraught with uncertainty. Protesters are likely to continue to demand legal and electoral reforms, and parties in Congress have the power to remove Sagasti and future presidents.
José Incio is a PhD candidate in political science at the University of Pittsburgh. Find him on Twitter @jlincio.