Peru underwent its greatest political instability in 20 years during the week of Nov. 10-17. In that time, the country saw three presidents, one period in which there was no president or leader of Congress, massive nationwide protests, and the deaths of two demonstrators at the hands of police on a major thoroughfare in the capital, Lima. Although the political crisis developed quickly, it was the culmination of years of tensions between the executive and legislative branches of government. While the crisis subsided after a week with the appointment of a new president by Congress, the issues that caused it to remain, and the new president has only five months to defuse the volatile situation before new elections are held.
The tensions between the executive and legislative branches, which caused the crisis, have been present for years and remain present despite the recent de-escalation of tensions. The crisis can be traced to late 2017, when Congress, which was dominated by supporters of former President Alberto Fujimori, attempted to oust then-President Pedro Pablo Kuczynski from office. The Constitution allows Congress to declare that the president has vacated office through “permanent moral or physical incapacity,” and Fujimori’s supporters (Fujimoristas) narrowly failed to pass a resolution declaring Kuczynski to be permanently morally incapacitated, a term left undefined by the Constitution.
The Fujimoristas’ failure to remove Kuczynski did not relieve tensions for long. Shortly after Congress held its vote, Kuczynski pardoned Fujimori, who was serving a prison sentence for corruption and political killings that occurred during his presidency. Major nationwide protests broke out, with many accusing Kuczynski of entering into an agreement with the Fujimoristas to issue the pardon in exchange for their votes on the resolution. Kuczynski’s allies in Congress quickly abandoned him, and, facing a second vote that was nearly certain to result in his ouster, the president resigned.
Upon Kuczynski’s resignation, Vice President Martín Vizcarra assumed the presidency. He immediately clashed with Congress – and especially the Fujimoristas – by championing anti-corruption investigations into members of the legislature, proposing a constitutional amendment that would prohibit immediate reelection to Congress, and passing a measure that regulates the financing of congressional campaigns. The conflict escalated when Vizcarra used a constitutional provision to shut down Congress and call for new elections; Congress responded by declaring that Vizcarra had abandoned the presidency. Congress swore in Vizcarra’s own vice president as president, though the courts later sided with Vizcarra, ruling that the closure of Congress was legal and the swearing-in of the vice president was not.
The election of a new Congress in 2020 failed to quell the conflict between the branches of government. In September, the new Congress moved to declare Vizcarra incapacitated, but failed to do so when the many parties of the highly fractured Congress could not come to an agreement. In November, they abruptly and successfully voted to declare Vizcarra incapacitated after news of an unproven allegation of corruption against Vizcarra surfaced. Vizcarra was removed from office; because his own vice president had previously resigned, the leader of Congress, Manuel Merino, assumed the presidency.
Congress’ triumph over the president was to be short-lived. Most Peruvians opposed Vizcarra’s removal, and polls indicate that over a third of Peru’s population joined protests against the move. The heavy-handed approach of the police in confronting demonstrators further incensed the population, and when police killed two demonstrators in central Lima, Merino resigned after being in office for just five days. As Congress had not yet elected a new leader, the presidential line of succession was exhausted, creating a power vacuum. Finally, after a day of debate, Congress elected Francisco Sagasti as its leader, allowing him to be sworn in as president.
While President Sagasti is widely supported by the protesters and street demonstrations immediately declined upon his inauguration, the structural issues that caused the crisis remain. Sagasti’s party holds just nine seats in the 130-member Congress, meaning he, too, will likely face stiff opposition from Congress. Additionally, civil society leaders are calling for the police officers responsible for the deaths of protesters to be imprisoned; while one of Sagasti’s first official acts was to announce a reform of the police, protesters will likely be angered unless the officers are quickly put on trial. Additionally, the ambiguity of the constitutional provision allowing Congress to declare the presidency vacant serves as a long-term threat to stability in Peru. In the wake of the crisis, the Constitutional Tribunal was asked to issue a ruling as to when the provision may be invoked, but it refused to take the case, leaving the Constitution open to varying interpretations.
With general elections scheduled for April 2021, Sagasti has little time to address these issues. The elections could lead to further unrest; Peru’s parties are very weak and have little support, meaning there is no clear candidate who can usher in a new era of stability, and many Peruvians will be unhappy with the winner no matter the outcome. While Peru’s political crisis has dramatically improved from the chaotic week it had in November, long-term instability remains.
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