Peru’s political crisis: what happens next?

The unexpected impeachment of Peru’s president, Martín Vizcarra, is the latest twist in a ferocious battle between the executive and legislature that has plagued the country’s politics since the last elections in 2016.

Mr Vizcarra, who was impeached by Congress on Monday over corruption allegations, left office immediately. He was replaced on Tuesday by the head of Congress, Manuel Merino, who is expected to lead the country through to next April’s presidential elections.

Why did Mr Vizcarra lose?

On the morning of the vote, it seemed Mr Vizcarra would win. He had easily defeated a similar impeachment attempt two months earlier.

But unlike in some previous votes, Peru’s political parties gave their members free rein to vote as they wished, with only one of the nine parties in the fractured house voting as a bloc.

Before the vote, Mr Vizcarra gave a combative speech, pointing out that more than 60 members of congress were under investigation by prosecutors. Some parliamentarians reacted badly to that speech, describing it as “arrogant” and “distant”.

Citibank analysts also said “a set of last-minute audio leaks seems to have tilted the balance”. The corruption case against Mr Vizcarra has largely been based on leaked WhatsApp messages, which appeared to suggest his closeness to construction companies that allegedly paid bribes to win contracts in a region of southern Peru while he served as the region’s governor.

Mr Merino, who led the failed impeachment attempt in September, seems to have been more successful this time in winning over other parties. This, according to Eileen Gavin, principal Latin American analyst at Verisk Maplecroft, is “indicative of a slew of backroom deals in the past month”.

What was the public reaction to the vote?

A protester in Lima on Monday holds a sign that reads in Spanish ‘Only Vizcarra represents me’ © AFP via Getty Images

People were angry. Mr Vizcarra has garnered a lot of public support for his anti-corruption campaign. Congress, in contrast, is a hated institution, widely regarded as corrupt and self-serving. One recent Ipsos poll found 78 per cent of Peruvians opposed impeachment, with many saying Congress should be dealing with the coronavirus pandemic and the economy — not trying to remove the president.

Following Mr Vizcarra’s defeat, his supporters took to the streets in protest, and there were isolated clashes with the police. Later though, Mr Vizcarra appeared in public and accepted his defeat. That calmed waters, although many Peruvians regard what happened as “a coup” and might be prepared to take to the streets again, depending on what Mr Merino does next.

What happens next?

Now that Mr Merino has been sworn in, he will choose a new cabinet. He insists he will stick to next year’s presidential timetable, which envisages a first round vote in April, a second round (if needed) in June, with a new president taking office in July. Any deviation from that pledge will trigger howls of protests, not only from Peruvians but also the EU and the Organisation of American States.

Mr Merino might try to reverse Mr Vizcarra’s political reform that bans members of Congress from seeking re-election. Again, any such attempt will face stiff resistance.

With only a few months in which to operate, Mr Merino might try to implement populist economic policies, such as reducing VAT or allowing Peruvians to dip into their pensions to alleviate the hardship caused by the pandemic.

Generally, though, he was “very likely to favour a key role for the private sector in the economy and minimum state intervention, particularly in the mining sector”, said Diego Moya-Ocampos, analyst at IHS Markit.

Who is the new president?

Peru’s new president Manuel Merino  tried to persuade the armed forces to back a previous attempt to oust Mr Vizcarra
Peru’s new president Manuel Merino tried to persuade the armed forces to back a previous attempt to oust Mr Vizcarra © AFP via Getty Images

A 59-year-old agronomist from the northern city of Tumbes, Mr Merino is an unremarkable career politician, having served as a member of Congress for three periods in 20 years. He is a member of Acción Popular (Popular Action), a party with a vague centre-right ideology.

He won notoriety in September when he tried to persuade the armed forces to back a previous attempt to oust Mr Vizcarra.

“Inexperienced and untested, [he] will now have to pick up the pandemic response and economic recovery,” Ms Gavin said. “He will not be up to the challenge”.

What will this mean for next year’s elections?

Peru’s electoral field was already wide open before Monday’s vote, and the outcome of next year’s election is now even more uncertain. Mr Merino might use his time in office to bid for the presidency, rather as Jeanine Añez did (unsuccessfully) in neighbouring Bolivia.

Mr Vizcarra’s supporters might reward the centrist Purple party for its loyalty: it was the only party that supported him in the impeachment vote and the party’s leader, Julio Guzmán, is likely to run for the presidency.

Polls suggest the frontrunner is George Forsyth, a young former footballer and mayor who described what happened on Monday as “a coup in disguise”. But most polls suggest no one has a clear lead. One poll presented people with a long list of candidates and asked who they would vote for. About 31 per cent replied “none”.

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