In the War for the Soul of Peru, a Battle Is Won

By Cynthia McClintock*

Protest in Lima, Peru – November 2020/ Samantha Hare/ Flickr/ Creative Commons License

The political battles that have seized Peru this month have been intense because the prospects for a democratic, ethical Peru are at stake. On November 9, Peru’s Congress impeached President Martín Vizcarra, a champion of the war against corruption in the country. He was succeeded by the Congress’s Speaker, Manuel Merino, who – after six days of massive protests from all social classes and all regions of the country – resigned. Legislators then came together around a respected centrist, Francisco Sagasti, as Peru’s new president. Sagasti promises to continue the reform effort.

  • The most important cause of the impeachment was elites’ pushback against anti-corruption efforts, particularly the prosecution of under-the-table payments by companies to politicians, an entrenched practice in Peru for centuries. By the estimate of the historian Alfonso Quiroz, under no administration since Peru’s independence was the cost of corruption less than one percent of its GDP. Amid the kickbacks, sub-par companies won bids for state contracts, leading to huge cost overruns and outright project failures. All four presidents elected since 2001 and scores of additional authorities have been prosecuted for this reason. Approximately half the legislators feared an end to their own immunity from prosecution. Legislators of two of the nine political parties in Congress have personal stakes in for-profit universities, which were threatened by newly introduced higher standards for universities.
  • Political interests were also at stake. One political party was pursuing amnesty for its imprisoned leader. Many legislators were dismayed by the brevity of their term (March 2020-July 2021), an upshot from the previous Congress’s confrontation with Vizcarra in late 2019. They hoped to postpone the legislative and presidential elections due in April 2021 and tilt the playing field for the elections in their favor.

The crisis challenges some long-held observations about Peru.

  • The argument of many political scientists that the cause of Peru’s democratic deficits has been the fragmentation among weakly institutionalized parties is questionable. In recent years, Fuerza Popular, led by Keiko Fujimori, was strongly institutionalized; in 2011 and 2016, Keiko was the runner-up for the presidency and, in 2016, the party gained an absolute majority of legislative seats. Merino hails from Acción Popular, a historic party that had recently rebounded. The impeachment vote in the legislature was overwhelming: 105 of 130 legislators in favor. Neither strongly nor weakly institutionalized parties were putting the interests of Peru first.
  • The argument that the cause was the “permanent moral incapacity” clause in Peru’s Constitution per se is also questionable. The clause is vague, but it had also been used to impeach Alberto Fujimori and threaten the impeachment of Pedro Pablo Kuczynski. Although the allegations against Vizcarra – of kickbacks for public-works contracts during his governorship of Moquegua – were made by suspects in criminal cases aspiring to plea bargains, they are worrisome.

For Peruvians, especially young Peruvians, the fear that their country would remain in the throes of the “traditional corrupt political class” was immense. The protests were the largest in Peru since the 1970s. As Merino enabled repression resulting in at least two deaths and hundreds of injuries, the outcry grew ever stronger.

  • Vizcarra was enjoying an approval rating near 60 percent – in the stratosphere for presidents in Peru. Some 90 percent of Peruvians opposed his impeachment. Despite the allegations of corruption against Vizcarra, what mattered to Peruvians was that he was fighting corruption now.
  • In his six days in the presidency, Merino was disastrous. A three-term Acción Popular legislator from Peru’s north without any known achievements, he was perceived as the embodiment of the term “political hack.” His cabinet appointments were far to the right of most Peruvians. Merino and his ministers dismissed protestors’ concerns, refusing even to acknowledge the police repression.

The challenges in Peru are immense. Elections are to be held in five months even though the pandemic has hit Peru exceptionally hard. Its mortality rate is the worst in Latin America, and the expected contraction of GDP for 2020 is the second worst after Venezuela. But Sagasti is off to an excellent start and seems poised to continue Peru’s move in an ethical, democratic direction.

  • A policy analyst and professor with a Ph.D. from the University of Pennsylvania, Sagasti was serving for the first time as a legislator with the centrist Partido Morado. Like him, most of the new cabinet members have advanced degrees and considerable experience in the public sector; ministers in the interior and justice portfolios are sympathetic to human rights concerns. In his inauguration speech, he promised to continue the war against corruption and respect democratic principles. He spoke movingly of the youths who had lost their lives in the protests. He ended with a poem – setting a tone that the country desperately needs.

November 20, 2020

*Cynthia McClintock is Professor of Political Science and International Affairs at George Washington University.

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