What's Driving Support for Peru’s Anti-Corruption Authoritarian Leader?
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
President Martín Vizcarra suspended Congress. But he's winning his electorate's support to clean up the country's endemic corruption.
By Gideon Long
President Martín Vizcarra’s anti-corruption campaign has received a boost with Peru’s main opposition party suffering a heavy defeat in a congressional election last week.
Vizcarra shut down congress in September after lawmakers repeatedly obstructed his campaign to curb parliamentary privilege and clean up public office.
Opposition lawmakers decried the move as “a coup” and branded the president a dictator. But polls suggested the vast majority of Peruvians — fed up with congress’ bickering, corruption and intransigence — welcomed the decision. For the four months since then, Vizcarra has ruled by decree.
According to provisional results in last Sunday’s election, 10 parties won seats in the 130-seat chamber with no one party getting more than 11 percent of the vote. The big loser was the right-wing Popular Force (FP) party led by former presidential candidate Keiko Fujimori. It took less than 7 percent of the vote and looked set to win about 12 seats, down from 73 at the last congressional election in 2016.
Fujimori’s party had used its parliamentary clout to bring down the previous president in 2018 and make life difficult for Vizcarra. With its power now curbed, the president may be able to press ahead with his reform program, although — with no political party of his own — he will still need to forge alliances.
Perhaps the biggest winner is not a party but an idea: the idea that shutting down the previous congress was good for the country.
Arturo Maldonado, Pontifical Catholic University
Part of the president’s mooted reforms include scrapping parliamentary immunity for lawmakers so that they can be brought before judges more easily if accused of crimes.
“It’s an even more fragmented congress than we expected,” says Arturo Maldonado, a political analyst at the Pontifical Catholic University in Lima. “There is a clear loser — Fujimori’s movement — but there are no clear winners. Perhaps the biggest winner is not a party but an idea: the idea that shutting down the previous congress was good for the country.”
Some analysts believe the president’s bold move acted as an escape valve for pent-up public anger and saved Peru from the violent street protests that rocked other Andean nations in late 2019.
Peru has been wracked by corruption scandals. More than any other country outside Brazil, it has been hit by the vast Odebrecht scandal, in which the Brazilian construction company paid millions of dollars in bribes to win contracts throughout Latin America.
Four of the past five Peruvian presidents are either in jail or under house arrest, accused or convicted of corruption and, in the case of former president Alberto Fujimori, of human rights abuses too. A fifth former president, Alan García, committed suicide last year to avoid arrest. Keiko Fujimori, Alberto’s daughter, is under investigation for allegedly accepting money from Odebrecht.
The scandals have eroded both public confidence in politicians and business confidence, hitting economic growth. After averaging growth of 4.8 percent a year this century, the Peruvian economy expanded by about 2.2 percent last year, its worst performance since the 2009 global economic crisis.
Peru goes to the polls again in April 2021 to choose a new parliament and a new president, meaning neither Vizcarra nor the lawmakers elected on Sunday will have much time to achieve their goals.
The biggest party in the new parliament will be the centrist Popular Action (AP), the party of Lima’s mayor Jorge Muñoz. On Sunday, Muñoz said the party aimed “to construct, not to destroy or be obstructionist,” although analysts warned it was unclear whether AP would support the president. “It’s an unknown quantity,” says Rodolfo Rojas, a partner at Sequoia, a political consultancy. “There’s a lot of uncertainty about how the new congress will behave. This is not a clear victory for Vizcarra.”
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