Congress voted by an overwhelming margin yesterday, 9 November, to impeach President Martin Vizcarra. There were 105 votes for impeachment, 19 against, and four abstentions. Vizcarra has already said that he will not challenge the outcome of the vote. Congressional president Manuel Merino of the Popular Action (AP) party will therefore be sworn in as president later today, 10 November.
A Merino administration
As previously explained, a Merino administration will be fundamentally weak and unstable. A majority of public opinion was opposed to impeachment and views the action against Vizcarra as brazen political opportunism. Merino is also seen as politically compromised by his association with corrupt elements within Congress, who saw Vizcarra’s impeachment as a way to shield themselves from legal investigation and punishment. Yesterday’s events prompted some protests; these could grow in the coming days.
In theory, it appears that Merino could remain as congressional president, though in practice he already faces pressure to relinquish the role as he assumes the presidency. Regardless, Merino’s ascension erodes the executive-legislative counterbalance. To make matters worse, Merino is unlikely to see himself as a caretaker but could push consequential reforms despite his fragile legitimacy. In the economic sphere, this is likely to mean allowing savers to access the ONP state pension fund and could also involve fiscally irresponsible changes to the 2021 budget.
Merino was quick to confirm that the existing election timetable will be respected. The first round of presidential voting takes place alongside legislative elections in April 2021, followed by a run-off vote in June and the handover to a new administration next July. However, there is pressure in Congress to postpone the elections, perhaps using the Covid-19 pandemic as an excuse. Perhaps more insidiously, there are elements pushing for changes to the political architecture as a means to maintain influence; for instance, there is pressure to re-introduce a bicameral system so that existing members of Congress can bypass a ban on re-election by running for a new Senate.
Impact on 2021
The conduct of the Merino administration over the next five months will clearly shape the electoral race. As far as yesterday’s events go, the impeachment vote is likely to galvanize public opinion against much of the current political establishment (“que se vayan todos” – “throw them all out”). Early poll frontrunner George Forsyth stands to benefit simply by being a fresh face in politics. Veronika Mendoza of the leftist New Peru (NP) movement, which is in alliance with the Together for Peru (JPP) party, is another potential beneficiary as she calls for a “return to democracy.”
From a different angle, the situation could also benefit Julio Guzman of the Purple Party (PM), which was the only party to vote as a bloc against impeachment, not out of any particular loyalty to Vizcarra, but – as the party framed it – in defense of democracy and institutions in a time of acute national crisis. If Merino’s administration struggles with governability and is seen as shielding corruption, Guzman’s pitch emphasizing stability and focused management of the twin economic and health crises could gain adherents.