Throughout an embattled 18-month tenure, President Martín Vizcarra has executed—with varying degrees of success—a series of calculated political risks, wielding the Peruvian constitution against an opposition-led Congress mostly disruptive of his legislative agenda, which has centered on anti-corruption and anti-impunity reforms.
On July 28, Vizcarra made an announcement proposing to move scheduled 2021 general elections up one year to 2020 during a national address in commemoration of Peruvian Independence Day. This surprise call for early elections is the latest iteration of this combative dynamic between the Vizcarra administration and the majority bloc of right-wing Fujimorista party Fuerza Popular (Popular Force) in Congress.
Prior to the call for early elections, the most recent example of constitutionally-backed politiquería had been a cuestión de confianza Vizcarra presented in May, which sought to compel Congress to approve a series of six constitutional reforms related to combating corruption and impunity. In Peru, a cuestión de confianza is a vote through which the president can request explicit congressional support for specific policy proposals when the executive is at odds with Congress.
Congress quickly approved the measure in June to avoid a constitutional crisis. If rejected, it would have given the president the power to dissolve Congress and hold new elections within four months. This was the desired outcome among the majority of Peruvians and left-leaning political parties. A deeply unpopular Congress combined with a popular mandate to address corruption would seem to present an opportunity to reshape the conservative legislature. Peru has endured an ongoing political crisis since the resignation of former president Pedro Pablo Kuczynski (PPK) in March 2018, following a series of scandals that exposed vote buying and controversial ties to Brazilian construction firm Odebrecht. Vizcarra assumed office after Kuczynski’s resignation.
But if the results of the 2016 elections serve as any kind of indicator, the Left, led by newcomers such as Veronika Mendoza, is looking to build upon modest electoral gains. Mendoza finished third in the presidential race, nearly qualifying for the second round runoff between eventual winner Kuczynski and Keiko Fujimori, who is now in prison on corruption charges. Unfortunately, the Peruvian Left is vulnerable to fracturing, complicating its ability to seize the opportunity of potential early elections. Nuevo Peru, for example, the party Mendoza leads, formed after splitting away from the leftist Frente Amplio coalition in 2017. Coalition-style politics, however, will be essential to the Left’s electoral success as Fuerza Popular continues to draw the ire of a dissatisfied electorate. Currently, 24 parties would be eligible to participate in a 2020 general election.
In accordance with President Vizcarra’s early elections proposal, any potential shakeup in Congress would happen one year ahead of schedule, with general elections taking place in July 2020 rather than July 2021. The proposal would also end the current presidential term one year earlier and bar Vizcarra from seeking immediate reelection, in effect preempting the conservative political discourse that has sought to characterize the Vizcarra administration as increasingly authoritarian. It also gives him leverage to implement his legislative agenda, which was the case in late August when Vizcarra signed into law four of the six constitutional reforms that had been the subject of this past June’s cuestión de confianza.
El Perú Primero
Though Vizcarra insists he is merely fulfilling the will of the people, parallels to jailed former dictator Alberto Fujimori remain a prevalent means to raise alarm, especially among conservative pundits. Both Fujimori and Vizcarra have consolidated power through the Peruvian constitution. Fujimori did so in 1992 by dissolving an obstructive Congress, thus initiating a constitutional crisis that led to the adoption of the 1993 constitution. Fujimori held a referendum to approve the new constitution, much like Vizcarra did in December 2018, when Peruvians overwhelmingly voted in favor of three out of four of the executive’s proposed constitutional reforms. Vizcarra’s popularity spiked as a result, just as it did last month when Congress granted him the vote of confidence. Fujimori also retained popularity following his auto-golpe in 1992. In both cases, the common denominator was an inability to work with Congress on key legislative issues such as corruption, domestic terrorism, and inflation. As it stands, Vizcarra, who has previously stated that he would not seek reelection to perhaps ease these concerns, is slated to finish his predecessor PPK’s quinquenio (five year term) in 2021.
The shock of the July 28 announcement was evident on the face of Vice President Mercedes Aráoz, who appeared to know nothing of the proposal approved by Vizcarra and his cabinet of ministers. Aráoz would assume office in the event Congress decides to remove the president, one of several possible scenarios that could play out in the coming weeks. The vice president, along with two other members of Congress, has since distanced herself from the Vizcarra administration, resigning from the dwindling bancada oficialista of Peruanos por el Kambio. Only four Congress members remain aligned with Peruanos por el Kambio, down from 18 when Kuczynski assumed office in 2016. Vizcarra, however, has stated that he prefers to govern without party affiliation, having not been a member of Peruanos por el Kambio before being invited to the party as Kuzcynski’s running mate. Former members of Peruanos por el Kambio, now belonging to a new party called Contigo, are likely to court Aráoz, as the party takes a harder stance toward the president. Contigo already announced their support for early elections on the condition Vizcarra resigns.
For Vizcarra’s early elections plan to move forward, Congress would first need to approve the proposal—which seems unlikely—before putting it to be ratified through a constitutional referendum. Peruvians, in turn, quickly turned to social media to express support for Vizcarra’s plan to hold early elections using hashtags like #ElPeruPrimero and #VizcarraSíMeRepresenta. The former is taken from the president’s July 28 address, when he said, “señor congresistas, el Perú primero,” conveying a sense of the growing public pressure for Congress to more effectively serve the country. The latter phrase grew out of a response, at times tongue-in-cheek, to a small minority of conservative Peruvians on social media who voiced opposition to the president’s plan.
The Fujimorista-led Congress also issued a statement on social media rebuking Vizcarra, accusing him of fomenting political instability and uncertainty—as if these were not defining characteristics of the current political coyuntura in Peru. Leftist coalition Frente Amplio and the more radical left-wing party Nuevo Peru, in turn, expressed their immediate support for the measure. Congresswoman Tania Pariona Tarqui of Nuevo Peru affirmed her party’s support with an eye toward Peru’s Bicentennial in 2021, tweeting, “The only way to end the political crisis will be the closure of this cycle of impunity and blindaje (politically-motivated shielding from criminal prosecution) practiced by the majority in Congress.” Peruanos por el Kambio, Alianza Para el Progreso (APP), Acción Popular, Bancada Liberal, and Unidos por la República have also expressed support for early elections.
Rising Tensions Ahead
For general elections to be held in 2020, Congress would have to approve the president’s proposal by September in order for a referendum to be held in November—at least according to the schedule suggested by the executive branch. The latter should not be a problem, as a recent Ipsos poll found that 75 percent of Peruvians support the idea of moving up elections. There will be other obstacles down the road, but the relatively condensed timeline puts the pressure firmly on Congress to earnestly consider Vizcarra’s proposal.
Meanwhile, Vizcarra is likely to push for the approval of the remaining constitutional reforms originally sent to Congress in April of this year. One stipulation of the cuestión de confianza approved in June is that Vizcarra can dissolve Congress if, for example, he feels that the proposed reforms have been desnaturalizado (fundamentally altered from the original essence of the proposal), or if they have not been brought to a vote in a timely manner. This kind of legislative obstruction is what led Vizcarra to bring a cuestión de confianza before Congress in the first place. Congress responded by setting a schedule to debate and vote on the reforms. An extension of the legislative session just before a legislative recess also seemed to indicate a sense of urgency on their part. Yet two more reforms remain to be voted on: the barring of candidates from standing in elections for certain crimes and changes to parliamentary immunity that would shift the power to remove the congressional immunity from the legislative branch to the judiciary. Strong opposition to the latter could lead Vizcarra to dissolve Congress anyway. If he were to do so in December, for example, then the timeline for legislative elections would be the same as if Congress were to vote in favor of moving up elections as per the president’s proposal (except that in the case of dissolving Congress only, Vizcarra would remain in office until 2021). None of this shrewd political strategy on the part of the Vizcarra administration seems to deviate from strict interpretation of the constitution, nor does the threat of a looming constitutional crisis appear to faze the general public given the fact that most Peruvians would prefer que se vayan todos—starting from scratch.
Social Unrest in Arequipa
Amid the uncertainty, President Vizcarra, in turn, is portrayed as a leader willing to sacrifice in order to satisfy the political will of the people, rather than a weary head of state unable or unwilling to continue working against a fraught political landscape inherited from his less-than-politically-astute predecessor. In reality, Vizcarra is still a politician with a neoliberal center-right agenda to fulfill. This was evident this past July when the Vizcarra administration granted a major construction permit to Southern Copper Mining Corporation for the controversial Tia Maria project in Arequipa, despite concerns related to environmental impact and labor exploitation. Vizcarra had once been a leader of the protests and formally opposed the project as governor of Moquegua. As president, he did not wait long to send the military to quell the uprising.
A massive regional strike, following weeks of protest, has since paralyzed the region, resulting in a temporary suspension of the mining permit and an average loss of over $13 million per day. Vizcarra, however, must still contend with demands to cancel the permit, as well as the fallout from the partial release of audio recordings of a four-hour meeting held with local and regional leaders in Arequipa in which the president is alleged to have promised to stop the mining project from moving forward. He has subsequently downplayed the controversy by calling it a distraction for Congress to avoid voting on whether or not to hold early elections. Yet the same could be said of the proposal for early elections, which provided a momentary distraction from the growing social unrest in southern Peru and popular support from the rest of the country. A pending proposal revising the laws that have governed Peru’s mining industry for the past three decades and the prospect of a new labor code unfavorable to workers will likely continue to fuel mass mobilizations among diverse sectors of Peruvian society as scrutiny of Vizcarra’s neoliberal economic agenda undoes the effects of a fleeting populism.
The best case scenario remains the possibility of holding early elections, though it is more likely a constitutional crisis will ensue following either the removal of Vizcarra and his cabinet from office or the dissolution of Congress. A new Congress, likely shaped by widespread dissatisfaction with Fuerza Popular, could pave the way for drastic political upheaval in Peru. This, at the very least, would complicate Vizcarra’s presidential legacy if the road to stable democracy were to be traced back to his proposal for early elections. However, pending the outcome of investigations into Vizcarra’s tenure as governor of Moquegua and his ties to the approval of a controversial airport in Chinchero, it remains to be seen if the president will meet the same fate as his living predecessors, who are all either under investigation for corruption or incarcerated.
Nestor David Pastor is a writer, musician, and translator from Queens, NY. Currently, he works with NACLA as Outreach Coordinator/Editorial Assistant and with the Latinx Project at NYU as program manager. He is also the founder of Huellas, a forthcoming bilingual magazine of long form narrative non-fiction. Follow him @ni_soy_pastor.