Latin America’s return to democracy has gone through many mishaps, especially in the hands of rogue presidents who centralize power and trample the law. But what happens when legislators are con artists?
Peru may reveal the answer to this riddle. After months of clashes, a persistent president and a parliament of comrades have reached an insurmountable impasse. Repeatedly frustrated in his attempts to make political reforms and pass anti-corruption legislation, President Martin Vizcarra dissolved Congress last week and called for new elections. Congress retaliated by voting to dissolve his presidency and installed the vice president in his place. Her term lasted 36 hours. Now one of the most prosperous nations in Latin America has a limbo legislature, its leader is behind the gates of the guarded palace and the Peruvians on the streets celebrating a revolt without a final stage.
Is it 1992 again? Probably not. That year, strongman Alberto Fujimori sent tanks to close Congress, silenced the opposition and intimidated everyone. He ruled by decree for the next eight years and is now under arrest for human rights abuse and corruption. Fujimori’s undisguised goal: to stifle democratic institutions and remain in power. Vizcarra’s, it seems, was to fix them and leave.
“This is not a man who is attacking Congress to accumulate more power. An obstructionist Congress has imposed itself and now (Vizcarra) is trying to govern without them,” said Jorge Valladares, a Peruvian scholar at the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance.
Scholars studying constitutions and political analysts are divided, and the whole issue can best be resolved in the constitutional court. The problem is that the court itself was part of the power struggle.
The immediate trigger for the clash was a months-long dispute over appointments to the highest seat in the country, where six of the seven acting judges are to be replaced. Vizcarra has lobbied Congress to make the selection process more transparent and increase popular participation. Congress ignored him and went ahead with the vote of new magistrates, beginning – revealingly – with the cousin of the congressional president, a strong opponent.
This is a well-known trick: From Bolivia to Venezuela, lawmakers have been fighting in vain while rogue executive leaders crowd the courts to give their excesses a legal veneer. In Peru, it is Congress that tries to capture the court.
“We know it’s a warning sign when a president tries to control the judiciary,” said Javier Corrales, a Latin American scholar at Amherst College. “But now we have a case of a misbehaving parliament. It would be nice if we could say that this is not democratic either. We are not used to asking Congress to be controlled.”
Two ghosts hang over the confrontation and explain much of Peru’s current political dysfunction. One is fujimorism, the toxic mark of the former dictator’s right-wing populism, now defended by his daughter Keiko. The other ghost is Odebrecht, the giant Brazilian construction company linked to kickbacks and vote buying schemes across Latin America. Four of Vizcarra’s immediate predecessors were hit in the Odebrecht investigations. Former President Alan Garcia committed suicide before going to prison.
It was the Odebrecht scandal that brought Vizcarra to office, when in 2018 President Pedro Pablo Kuczynski was charged and resigned. His downfall fueled fujimorism, which had never overcome his narrow defeat for Kuczynski in the elections two years earlier.
The Odebrecht affair also plagued the opposition, involving top names from the Fujimorist majority Popular Force party, starting with Keiko, who is awaiting trial for corruption behind bars. His party at first saw Vizcarra as a more flexible substitute – perhaps even as a “jail free” card for Keiko and his ailing father. (Kuczynski had pardoned Alberto Fujimori in a move to appease his opponents and survive an impeachment campaign, but Peru’s Supreme Court sent him back to prison.) Vizcarra had other ideas. A provincial governor who did not belong to any of Peru’s traditional parties, he took advantage of the popular moment to launch comprehensive reforms aimed at the beloved political establishment.
It took a while, but Vizcarra found his agenda: white collar crimes and political corruption. “At some point, he decided that his government would survive only if it confronted Congress,” Valladares said.
At the moment, Vizcarra is in advantage. Congressional elections are scheduled for January 26. A permanent commission was allowed to intervene in Congress, and Vizcarra replaced most of his cabinet. The Peruvian Sun has risen slightly amid the turmoil, and the country’s bonds remain among the safest bets in emerging markets.
Peru is far from appeased, however. Thanks to citizen unrest, the new Congress taking office next year will have new faces, but little command. They will only act until the next general election, scheduled for 2021, which leaves them with little time for reform, and even less to rescue the country’s least beloved public institution: a survey last week revealed that 89.5% of Peruvians agreed that Congress should be dissolved.
But here is the paradox: by playing the role of outsider, Vizcarra conquered a country tired of usual politics. However, to avoid the next crisis and order a makeover, Vizcarra may have to plug her nose and join the mud.
“Vizcarra has an agenda and public opinion by his side,” Valladares said. “To get this agenda going, he needs a party or social movement, and so far he doesn’t seem interested.”
A recent joke in Lima says that, more than a fair leader, Peru needs Captain Pantoja, the hero soldier of Mario Vargas Llosa’s comic novel “Pantaleon and the Visitators,” who is in charge of running a brothel to revive the morale of the troops. Unfortunately, Pantoja is not on the ballots. However, hopes are that the man who played the character in the cinema, Salvador del Solar – who stopped acting to become a politician, became Vizcarra’s prime minister and last week thwarted Congress to create the vote. non-trust – be ready for a bigger role.