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Peru’s presidential merry-go-round revolves once more

and . Nov 17, 2020
peru presidential merry-go-round Protester holds sign against lawmakers: "Congress of rats, a national shame." Photo: Myriam B/Shutterstock

At the beginning of the century, Argentina had a dreadful couple of weeks that would make magical realism pioneer Gabriel Garcia Márquez blush. After the economy hit rock bottom in 2001, violent protests broke out that obliterated the political system. In the last ten days of that year, Argentina went through five different presidents.

Nineteen years later, Peru is on a similar path, as 76-year-old lawmaker Francisco Sagasti became the country’s third different head of state in the space of a week.

</p> <p>He was elected by Congress on Monday, after the <a href="https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/the_americas/peru-president-merino-resigns-vizcarra/2020/11/15/47cb0a54-275c-11eb-92b7-6ef17b3fe3b4_story.html">resignation of interim President Manuel Merino</a>, who had taken office following the removal of Martín Vizcarra. Indeed, Mr. Vizcarra himself was a replacement for another disgraced leader, Pedro Pablo Kuczynski, who resigned in 2018.</p> <p>The latest change in power came as a result of violent protests against Mr. Vizcarra&#8217;s removal. The ousting of the president was deeply unpopular among the population, with demonstrators taking to the street denouncing what they called a parliamentary coup. Two people were killed in confrontations with law enforcement, leading to the resignation of 13 members of the caretaker president&#8217;s cabinet, making Manuel Merino&#8217;s job untenable.&nbsp;</p> <p>He subsequently <a href="https://elcomercio.pe/politica/gobierno/en-vivo-manuel-merino-mensaje-a-la-nacion-tras-tragedia-en-protestas-crisis-politica-congreso-de-la-republica-accion-popular-noticia/">stepped down</a> on Sunday.&nbsp;</p> <p>The Peruvian presidency was vacant for a whole day, as Congress organized itself to select the country&#8217;s third head of state in the space of a week. Mr. Sagasti was sworn in but his job is not secure. Protests are expected to continue and Peru&#8217;s constitutional court <a href="https://www.clarin.com/mundo/peru-tribunal-constitucional-analiza-destitucion-vizcarra-legal-congreso-busca-designar-nuevo-presidente_0_Xj4ROBvnm.html">could overrule Mr. Vizcarra&#8217;s ousting</a> and bring him back to the presidency.</p> <p>While there is never a good time for a political implosion, the current Peruvian crisis comes at a desperate moment in history. Beyond having one of the world&#8217;s <a href="https://brazilian.report/coronavirus-brazil-live-blog/2020/10/06/peru-to-hit-1000-covid-19-deaths-per-million-people/">highest rates of Covid-19 deaths per capita</a>, Peru&#8217;s economy shrank 16 percent in the first eight months of the year.</p> <p>Despite posting respectable growth rates in recent years, the current crisis has exposed the shortcomings of Peru&#8217;s economy, with many de facto monopolies and the rise of populism from both the left and right.</p> <h2>Peru has a powerful Congress and a weak party system</h2> <p>The Peruvian constitution gives Congress plenty of leeway to oust its presidents. Instead of an impeachment per se, heads of state can be removed from office if they are judged &#8220;morally unfit&#8221; by a single two-thirds majority vote.&nbsp;</p> <p>And, similar to other presidential systems in Brazil and the U.S., Peruvian law is particularly broad on what can constitute an ejectable offense. Those are dangerous powers in the hands of a hyper-partisan and widely corrupt legislature.</p> <p>Moreover, partisan structure in Peru is, by all accounts, flimsy. Back in 2003, political scientists Steven Levitsky and Maxwell A. Cameron pointed out the virtual absence of a party system in the country — a key tool for accountability in a representative democracy. As is seen in Brazil, parties are <a href="https://brazilian.report/power/2018/09/28/rebranding-brazil-parties-election/">constantly changing names</a> to the point when their ideology or nominal political stances become meaningless — while others are created and fold with ease.</p> <p>Throughout Mr. Vizcarra&#8217;s short stint in office, the Peruvian Congress — once <a href="https://brazilian.report/latin-america/2020/02/13/fujimori-dynasty-peruvian-politics-vizcarra/">dominated by supporters of Keiko Fujimori</a>, the daughter of former dictator Alberto Fujimori — was determined to prevent him from governing. One year ago, the former president dissolved the legislature and was almost ousted in the process.</p> <p>But the new Congress was not much better for Mr. Vizcarra, who — despite having no solid base among parties — is popular among voters. Peruvians say <a href="https://brazilian.report/latin-america/2019/10/01/peru-odebrecht-scandal-car-wash-vizcarra/">corruption is their country&#8217;s biggest problem</a> and they see Mr. Vizcarra as part of the solution. For many, his squabbles with Congress prove that he is a righteous leader.</p> <p>With Mr. Vizcarra out of the way, for the time being, voters fear that lawmakers could postpone elections in April 2021, in order to enjoy the spoils of the office for longer.&nbsp;</p> <p>The election of Francisco Sagasti as a caretaker until April 2021 could ease tensions — as his party was the only one to vote against Mr. Vizcarra&#8217;s ousting. But it would be naïve to believe Peru is headed towards stability.

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Gustavo Ribeiro

An award-winning journalist, Gustavo has extensive experience covering Brazilian politics and international affairs. He has been featured across Brazilian and French media outlets and founded The Brazilian Report in 2017. He holds a master’s degree in Political Science and Latin American studies from Panthéon-Sorbonne University in Paris.

Lucas Berti

Lucas Berti covers international affairs — specialized in Latin American politics and markets. He has been published by Opera Mundi, Revista VIP, and The Intercept Brasil, among others.

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