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September 17, 2020

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PERU: No let-up to political tussles even if Vizcarra survives impeachment

BY Nicholas Watson

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( 5 mins)
  • The next 48 hours will mark an especially fraught moment in the steadily rising confrontation between the executive and legislative branches.
  • While the threat of impeachment against President Martin Vizcarra is real, the most likely scenario is that he pulls through this crisis moment.
  • Even if he does avoid impeachment, Vizcarra will continue to face a recalcitrant Congress pushing an agenda of economic populism and in defense of corruption.
  • The political environment will remain highly unsettled until the 2021 elections.

Today, 17 September, the Constitutional Court (TC) will consider a challenge brought by the executive against the legislature for overstepping its functions, alongside an injunction seeking to block an impeachment vote scheduled for tomorrow in Congress. Congress late last week voted to start impeachment proceedings after a leak of audio tapes involving Vizcarra and senior staffers purportedly discussing how to cover up the alleged misuse of public funds (under USD 50,000) paid to a local entertainer, Richard Cisneros, for a series of motivational talks.

The TC must decide on the admissibility of the executive’s double challenge. It is difficult to know how the court will act given that the grounds for the impeachment bid – “moral incapacity” – are so open to subjective interpretation. If the court dismisses the challenge, the impeachment vote would take place as planned tomorrow, 18 September. Alternatively, the court could rule in favor of the injunction, which would force tomorrow’s vote to be scrapped, though that would risk provoking congressional fury.

Potentially complicating matters are local reports circulating today that the court could allow the vote to go ahead but with an enhanced threshold for impeachment; instead of 87 votes, 104 votes would be required. This would be controversial. Another complicated scenario would see the court fail to agree on the admissibility of the executive’s challenge by the time the impeachment vote occurs.

Impeachment drivers

The drivers of Vizcarra’s impeachment are two populist parties: the Union for Peru (UPP), which is allied with the extreme ethnic nationalist Patriotic Front grouping, and Podemos Peru, though a ragtag of others also supported the start of impeachment proceedings.

The motivations behind pursuing impeachment are mixed. The Patriotic Front’s Antauro Humala is serving a 19-year sentence for rebellion, homicide, and aggravated kidnap relating to the 2005 “Andahuaylazo” uprising but wants to secure an amnesty in time for the 2021 elections. Daniel Urresti of Podemos also wants to run for president but faces a murder trial over the killing of a journalist in the 1980s. Both probably see impeachment as a bargaining tool.

Others wanted Vizcarra to extend the life of this (unusually truncated) legislature, using the Covid-19 crisis as an excuse. Impeachment could be political revenge following Vizcarra’s refusal. Jostling for position within fragmented parties also goes some way to explaining the impeachment push, particularly within the Popular Action (AP) party, around two-thirds of whose legislators voted to start impeachment proceedings; the party is divided amid a three-way battle to be the AP’s presidential candidate next year. In the case of congressional president Manuel Merino, overweening ambition appears to be the main factor – Merino would succeed Vizcarra if the president is impeached. Finally, a clutch of parties is trying to drag out efforts to reform party financing rules so that they can avoid having them apply to the 2021 electoral process.

Impeachment losing steam?

As previously noted, support for the impeachment push has been losing momentum ever since Congress agreed to debate it. For starters, the vote to start proceedings fell 22 votes short of what is required to deliver impeachment. On top of that, Cesar Acuna, leader of the Alliance for Progress (APP) party that voted in favor of proceedings going ahead, backed away from the impeachment bid. Acuna was not the only prominent figure to speak out against impeachment. One of the most notable figures to oppose impeachment has been George Forsyth, mayor of the Lima district of La Victoria and the early but consistent presidential poll leader. The government has also revealed that Merino attempted to lobby the heads of the armed forces to support impeachment. This is likely to have contributed to strong public opposition to the impeachment vote.

Beyond the next 48 hours

If the executive’s legal challenge against Congress is upheld or if the impeachment vote goes ahead but Vizcarra survives, political tensions are highly unlikely to die down. Vizcarra has no party support in Congress and cannot build a viable coalition at this stage of proceedings. The anti-corruption agenda is the keystone of Vizcarra’s political capital, and he still has questions to answer over the Cisneros tapes (even if they appear relatively minor in the context of previous presidential wrongdoing). The perception that Vizcarra avoided an impeachment vote on the basis of an injunction ultimately granted by a handful of judges would also weaken the president’s position. Above all, Congress has only short-term ends given that no incumbent legislators can be re-elected in 2021. Humala and Urresti will continue to maneuver unscrupulously in pursuit of their aims.

In this context, economic populism is likely to continue. A repeat of the recent threat of censure against Finance Minister Maria Antonieta Alva would be likely. Alva may have survived the motion of censure vote earlier this week but the stark reality is that since the beginning of the current presidential term, finance ministers have only lasted a little over eight months; Alva has survived almost a year in the job under the most difficult circumstances given the Covid-19-induced economic crisis. In parallel, there is an initiative in Congress to allow people who have not contributed to their private pension in the last 12 months to withdraw the totality of their pension savings, which it is calculated could encompass 35% of the private pension system.

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