Peru: A plot against the Anti-Corruption President?

Peru: A plot against the Anti-Corruption President?

A contract made by the Ministry of Culture and a suspected bribe began two impeachment proceedings into President Martin Vizcarra within as many months. The first set of proceedings were swift and cleared Vizcarra, the second was much more decisive. The initial impeachment may have highlighted members of Congress’ intent towards a coup, the second furthers these claims.  

Peru is in the midst of twenty years of turmoil through corruption and criminal activity of its political elite. The current President Martín Vizcarra came into office in 2018 following the resignation of Pedro Pablo Kuczynski, who resigned due to pressure from congress following allegations of corruption. Vizcarra came into power on an anti-corruption campaign, vying to  clean-up politics in Peru. However, his  presidency has been tainted by unsuccessful impeachment calls both in 2019 and now twice again this year. After surviving the first calls for impeachment in September Vizcarra had to survive seven months before the next presidential election, in an atmosphere of a hostile congress. As of November 9 2020 Vizcarra will no longer be the President of Peru after losing his impeachment battle. A once weak president under permanent attack by a fragmented Congress now resigned to the history books of impeached Presidents in Peru. Congress claimed that moral corruption and his handling of the pandemic has been his undoing, it would seem more likely that Vizcarra’s determination to reforming the political establishment has caused his downfall. Vizcarra’s reforms were popular among the people in Peru but also gained him enemies in Congress and within the political elite. Manuel Merino will now be sworn in as President on Wednesday 11 November 2020.  

Vizcarra’s Reforms

Vizcarra’s anti-corruption mandate has caused Congress to retaliate before in 2019; ultimately leading to the dissolution of Congress. The mandate that Vizcarra has would see the end of corruption within the political elite in Peru and has worried the Congress, where corruption is endemic. Some of the key figures of Congress are under investigation for suspected money laundering. Congress was not keen on the series of reforms that Vizcarra has pursued to make to the Peruvian political system. These have included cleaning up campaign financing, making internal party elections more transparent and to toughen rules preventing convicted criminals running for public office, such as Antauro Humala. Humala is currently imprisoned and is petitioning for his freedom so he can put in a bid for the 2021 election. Humala has strong ties with the UPP (Union for Peru), and is one of the main advocates for impeachment. 

The reforms that Vizcarra proposed would allow for more transparency within the democratic system of Peru allowing for more trust in the system. Trust is desired in Peru after 20 years of political corruption, with 85% of the people supporting these reforms. The general public seem to be in favour of the anti-corruption president and his reforms as seen with the high approval ratings; which have been maintained even during the impeachment proceedings and the mires of the Coronavirus. The support for the reforms make it difficult for Congress to vote against them, however, if Vizcarra was removed due to moral incapacity, then the incumbent president could push the reforms aside. 

Impeachment Express

On 10 September 2020, three audio tapes were submitted into evidence by Congress legislator Edgar Alarcon. The tapes, it was claimed by the opposition,  demonstrated “moral incapacity” by the President in the awarding of government contracts to singer Richard Swing – contracts that were made by the Ministry of Culture. The tapes were submitted to show a history of favouritism within the Vizcarra’s government. Vizcarra admitted to knowing and meeting with Swing, but denied any wrongdoing on his part. Although 65 members initially voted for impeachment proceedings to be opened, only 32 voted for the impeachment itself, far short of the 87 required. In the space of a week 33 members altered their vote and voted in favour of supporting the President. Commentators have noted at the speed that these proceedings have been brought forward. It has made many commentators question why 33 members changed their opinion. It may have been the case that there was a lack of evidence to follow through with further impeachment proceedings, or more likely that the Coronavirus pandemic was a more pressing issue. The issue needed stability and an impeachment trial would not have done this. 

Despite the Coronavirus and political turmoil that Peru now faces, the situation within Peru has become more glum in recent days with developments in the second impeachment trial leading to the impeachment of Vizcarra. The fresh round of claims date back a number of years where it is claimed that Vizcarra accepted a bribe of $639,000 from construction companies. This round of impeachment calls has led to Vizcarra stating that “every time you try to defeat that virus of corruption, it defends itself by attacking.” The impeachment process was voted through with a vote of 105-19 and 4 abstentions. The trial was labeled by Vizcarra as a way to destabilise Peru before the election in the new year, this may be the case as within minutes of the vote being announced supporters of Vizcarra gathered outside Congress to chant “coup.” A growth in discontent and distrust within the Peruvian system could now descend Peru into political instability and civil unrest, with civil unrest already beginning in peaceful terms as outrage takes hold of the Peruvian people. 

A Plot by Congress

The impeachment process has not only attempted to discredit the Vizcarra reforms but was an opportunity for other senior figures in Congress to make potential moves towards the office of the President. It has been reported that Manuel Merino, began to form a pseudo-cabinet, as the next in line to replace the President. This may have been constructed as a contingency as Merino sits as the President of the Congress, and Vizcarra is without a Vice President, thus constitutionally allowing Merino to become the next President of Peru, if Vizcarra was to resign or be impeached. It has also been reported that Merino had tried to enlist the support of the Peruvian military in his campaign to remove Vizcarra. In 2000 the Fujimori regime fell and the military became distanced from politics. The recruitment of the military could have catapulted the military back into the forefront of Peruvian politics, creating discontent and distrust between the people and its military. Seizing the presidency through impeachment or coup would have been Merino’s only option as Vizcarra had previously refused to resign. The construction of a pseudo cabinet and the attempted recruitment of the military all point towards Merino’s pre-emptive attempt to seize control of the Presidency via a coup. This could have ensued in more political turmoil in Peru, eroding further trust in the civil institutions.

The development in the trial and the impeachment of Vizcarra has led to a number of officials and commentators further claiming this to be a coup by Merino as a way to gain power before the upcoming election. 

History of Criminals and Risk for the political Future

Over the past 20 years, Peru has seen every President until Vizcarra impeached or pursued for criminal activity. The impeachment of Vizcarra has followed in stride. Merino’s positioning to take over the Presidency signaled as to why the impeachment process was rushed through and the desire for a second trial in such a short space of time. It seemed logical to hold an enquiry into the audio tapes and the auditors reports as to the contracts with Swing as well as the suspected bribe, however both impeachment trials were conducted in short spaces of time. This may have been due to Congress’ desire to refocus on more pressing issues, such as combatting the coronavirus outbreaks and the accompanying economic recessions, but may have been an attempt to scare Vizcarra out of office. A manoeuvre that had temporarily failed, but has finally succeeded. 

The risk that Peru now faces is how to maintain a clean democratic election in 2021. With Vizcarra not running for re-election, it would seem that Merino may want to start campaigning for the office. The allegations being reported against him may prove to be a stumbling block to Merino as it would suggest that he is politically volatile and likely to conduct illicit action while in office. This is something that the Peruvian people would not want, as they have signalled their support for reform and democratic change as seen in the referendum. In the short term, the risk to Vizcarra’s plans for reform may be in jeopardy as he is facing seven months with a congress that does not support his reforms and Peru is left with a weak president who is waiting to leave. The next seven months and the run up to the presidential election will be a test for the people of Peru and the civil institutions that have been attacked by corruption scandals, plots and coups.

Categories: Latin America, Politics

About Author

James Vickery

James specializes in political developments relating to nationalism and populism throughout different regions of the world. He recently finished studying for his MA in International Relations from Aberystwyth University, where his research focused on populism in Latin America and North America. James obtained a Bachelor’s in Political Studies from Aberystwyth University, with his studies focusing on human rights, security, and political theory. James is interested in the geopolitical developments in Latin America as well as sub-state nationalism in Europe.