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November 17, 2020

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PERU: Power vacuum ends but 2021 elections make for uncertain horizon

BY Nicholas Watson

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( 4 mins)

Following Manuel Merino’s sudden resignation on 15 November, Congress last night voted in Francisco Sagasti as congressional president, which – in the absence of a president – elevates him to the executive; he will be sworn in today to serve out the term that concludes in July 2021. Sagasti is from the centrist Purple Party (PM), which opposed Martin Vizcarra’s impeachment. Mirtha Vasquez of the leftist Broad Front (FA) will be congressional president, with Luis Roel from Popular Action (AP) and Matilde Fernandez of Somos Peru (SP) making up the rest of the congressional leadership – and line of succession. The Sagasti-led slate won 97 votes versus 26 against.

A more settled outlook

Sagasti’s election ends the power vacuum that arose after Merino’s resignation on 15 November and should restore some calm after a week of violent protests. The Sagasti-Vasquez formula has the backing of the legislators’ own parties, in addition to the Alliance for Progress (APP) and the conservative Popular Agricultural Front of Peru (Frepap). Sagasti himself is a centrist with a solid reputation who appears to understand his role as a caretaker and the need for cross-party backing and consensus to maintain stability over the next five months. Legislative elections and the first round of the presidential vote are scheduled for 11 April 2021. Helpfully, there is a precedent of a caretaker president successfully managing a transition away from political dysfunction and turbulence: Valentin Paniagua exactly 20 years ago following the collapse of Alberto Fujimori (1990-2000)’s government.

The awkward squad

This is not to claim that Sagasti will have an easy time ahead. The final agreement on the Sagasti-Vasquez formula only came about after 24 hours of intense maneuvers in Congress, and not before the Union for Peru (UPP) – the architects of the Vizcarra impeachment and Merino’s main backers – attempted to push their own slate. The 26 votes against Sagasti, which included the UPP as well as Fuerza Popular (FP), indicate where congressional opposition to the caretaker administration is likely to originate. The UPP will remain a destabilizing force. The FP’s vote suggests it is veering back to obstructionism, possibly as party boss Keiko Fujimori sees instability as her best route back to political prominence and power. Finally, congressional fragmentation has increased over the past week following defections and the establishment of yet another new bloc going by the name of Democratic Decentralization.

Electoral interference

Sagasti’s immediate challenge will be to get his eventual cabinet approved in Congress. This should be achievable if the new president opts for the same balanced, cross-party formula on which his elevation to the presidency was based. Assuming that Sagasti can consolidate his position in the days and weeks ahead, the main challenge to stability is likely to come from increasing electoral competition in the run-up to next April’s vote.

If Sagasti proves successful as a caretaker, especially when it comes to his handling of the Covid-19 pandemic, it would boost the PM’s standing and by extension the party’s 2021 presidential candidate Julio Guzman. On the flipside, success for Sagasti and a subsequent rise in the polls for the PM could see party support for the caretaker administration begin to fray as the AP, APP, and FA look to outmaneuver Guzman in the run-up to April.

Emerging dynamics

The prominent role of young people in the anti-Merino protests over recent days adds a new dynamic to the electoral contest, especially in the context of Peru’s bicentenary of independence next year. However, Guzman is not the only candidate who will be looking to tap the youth vote: Veronika Mendoza and George Forsyth are both under 40 themselves.

The bicentenary and the almost constant turbulence of the 2016-21 presidential period – not to mention neighboring Chile’s constitutional process – could also bring the notion that a new constitution is needed firmly into the mainstream. The Left has been demanding a new constitution for some time already. FA leader Marco Arana – who new congressional president Vasquez answers to – is stepping up his re-foundational rhetoric and campaign for a new constitution, which makes it likely that the issue features in the upcoming election campaign. A constitutional debate is not necessarily negative per se but it could generate uncertainty stretching into the middle distance.

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