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November 3, 2020

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PERU: Bracing for another impeachment bout

BY Nicholas Watson

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( 5 mins)
  • President Martin Vizcarra should survive next week’s impeachment vote, though congressional fragmentation injects uncertainty into the outlook.
  • Even if Vizcarra sees off this threat, the hostile politics behind his impeachment will persist.
  • Vizcarra’s impeachment would usher in a weak replacement with a highly controversial agenda.
  • Economic populism is already advancing but would be more difficult to contain if Vizcarra ends up being ousted.

Congress voted yesterday, 2 November, to initiate impeachment proceedings against President Martin Vizcarra for the second time in under two months. This second impeachment bid centers on allegations that Vizcarra received kickbacks totaling over USD 600,000 when he was governor of Moquegua (2011-2014). The impeachment vote itself is scheduled to take place on 9 November.

Impeachment math

There were 60 votes in favor of an impeachment process; absences in Congress meant that 50 votes, not the normal 52, were required. Forty voted against, and there were 18 abstentions. To impeach the president, a two-thirds majority (87 votes assuming a full Congress) will be needed.

On the face of it, the numbers are reasonably positive for Vizcarra. Yesterday’s 60 votes in favor of initiating proceedings were down by five from September’s equivalent vote. Meanwhile, the votes against increased by 14 from last time around as the Alliance for Progress (APP) led by presidential aspirant Cesar Acuna solidified against opening impeachment. Moreover, the pro-impeachment vote dropped significantly (to 32) in the deciding congressional ballot held later in September.

Most likely scenario – survival

The reasons for the failure of September’s process continue to apply now – and make it more likely than not that Vizcarra will survive this second vote. Public opinion is overwhelmingly against impeachment at this stage of Vizcarra’s presidency. A new president will be elected over April/June 2021 and begin their term in office in July 2021. Additionally, there is a strong argument that the government’s focus should be on the twin health and economic crises, and not on defending itself from an antagonistic Congress; Acuna’s positioning reflects the electoral costs that could stem from being seen to politick at a time of deep crisis.

Removing Vizcarra would confer significant power to some unscrupulous parties in Congress, led by the Union for Peru (UPP), which is allied with the extreme ethnic nationalist Patriotic Front grouping. Doubtless they would use the time available to consolidate this power, perhaps by seeking to extend the life of this Congress beyond 2021 or re-establish an upper chamber in order to shield corrupt legislators. However, this – and any parallel action to dismantle corruption investigations – would likely face a strong public backlash. There is therefore every chance that their ascendancy would be fleeting and their actions blocked or reversed.

Divisions inject uncertainty

The outlook ahead of the vote is muddied by internal party divisions. Few parties voted as cohesive blocs yesterday; these included the UPP, the APP, and the Purple Party (PM), the latter two in opposition to an impeachment hearing. Most of Podemos Peru (PP) voted in favor yesterday, though not the party’s lead presidential candidate Daniel Urresti, which makes it difficult to predict how the 11-strong bloc will vote on 9 November. Even if they retreat, the indigenist, ultra-conservative Popular Agricultural Front of Peru (Frepap) could replace the PP; the Frepap abstained yesterday, as they did initially in September before proceeding to vote for impeachment.

Meanwhile, Fuerza Popular (FP) voted against initiating proceedings in September but yesterday was mostly in favor – that points to another difference from September: the allegations are much more serious this time around, to the extent that if Vizcarra does make it through the upcoming vote, his opponents are unlikely to let up in their offensive against his administration; if the pressure against the president himself eases, cabinet ministers would be the next logical target. If Vizcarra manages to serve out his term, he will almost certainly find himself bogged down in legal investigations as soon as his term ends.

The other scenario…

The most likely scenario – that Vizcarra survives next week’s vote – could shift if more evidence emerges or other people claiming to have evidence of corruption in Moquegua come forward over the next few days. The culture of leaking secretly recorded audio and videotapes to inflict maximum political damage means this is possible.

If a two-thirds majority is reached on 9 November, the political outlook would become even more unstable. Congressional president Manuel Merino (Popular Action (AP)) would replace Vizcarra. However, the UPP, the leftist Broad Front (FA), and others could press for the postponement of the April 2021 legislative elections, perhaps using the Covid-19 pandemic as an excuse and/or some kind of retrospective challenge against the rules established for the 2020-2021 Congress. Postponing the presidential election would be much riskier (and therefore unlikely), in part because presidential candidates, the armed forces, and the wider public would oppose any alteration to the presidential election calendar.

A hypothetical Merino-led administration would also face pressure from the Patriotic Front’s Antauro Humala (currently serving a 19-year sentence for rebellion, homicide, and aggravated kidnap that will see him freed in 2024), who would continue his campaign for a judicial pardon. The PP’s Urresti, who faces a trial starting later this month over the murder of a journalist in 1988, would probably push for a further loosening of pension withdrawal rules; in a separate setback for Vizcarra yesterday, Congress voted overwhelmingly in favor of allowing people to make a second withdrawal from the private pension system. Merino would do little to discourage populist economic policy measures of this sort as he would look to curry favor with the public.

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