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December 9, 2020

Latam

PERU: No honeymoon for Sagasti amid unsettled outlook

BY Nicholas Watson

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President Francisco Sagasti has had a difficult few days. The political afterglow that might normally follow from a successful cabinet endorsement vote in Congress never materialized. Not only was Sagasti forced to drop his pick for interior minister to secure the endorsement vote, but the replacement for the role, Cluber Aliaga, proved to be a poor choice, resigning after only four days in the job. Sagasti and his cabinet chief Violeta Bermudez share some responsibility for the situation. However, it is also clear that destabilizing elements in Congress will exploit anything and everything to undermine the caretaker administration. The political horizon is therefore likely to remain unsettled and prone to bouts of crisis.

To secure approval for his cabinet last week, Sagasti was obliged to jettison first-choice Ruben Vargas and replace him with Aliaga, who was more acceptable to the police (PNP), which is riling at the removal of its 20 most senior commanders and Sagasti’s talk of a reform and modernization drive. The shake-up at the PNP was prompted by the violent repression of protests during Manuel Merino’s brief and controversial presidency last month. However, the Aliaga decision began to look increasingly ill-advised as the now ex-minister described the PNP shake-up as “rushed” and then – contrary to evidence – accused protestors of inciting violence against the police. Following Aliaga’s exit on 7 December, Sagasti appointed a close advisor, Jose Elice, as his replacement.

Sagasti cannot afford to lose the PNP’s goodwill. Not only do protests represent a constant challenge across the country, but security forces will be important for Covid-19 vaccine logistics next year. However, vested interests and corruption also abound in the force. Elice’s appointment suggests Sagasti is not prepared to back down, which points to there being no easy solution to the controversy. Ultimately, however, Sagasti has acknowledged that a full reform of the PNP should fall to whoever is elected in 2021. In parallel, Sagasti’s enemies in Congress are looking to exploit the situation. The Popular Action (AP) party has submitted a bill to reincorporate the PNP generals to the force, while another bloc wants to question Bermudez over the interior ministry changes.

The confluence between corrupt elements within the PNP and Congress highlights how vested interests will fight tooth-and-nail to protect themselves from scrutiny even after recent events might have made it appear that they would fall back from outright antagonism – at least temporarily. In fact, the costs of provoking further political instability and undermining hard-won economic progress are seemingly ignored or dismissed. Additionally, a part of the opposition sees the situation as an opportunity to hamper Sagasti and the Purple Party (PM) to which he is associated as a way to discredit the PM’s presidential candidate Julio Guzman. Sagasti has limited defenses, which is likely to make for an uneasy period ahead.

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