The impeachment of Martín Vizcarra on the 9th of November 2020, has led to a nationwide upsurge of violent protests in which two young men have died. Vizcarra’s successor, interim president Manuel Merino, resigned just after five days of having been sworn in. Now, all hope is placed in Francisco Sagasti – current interim president until presidential elections in April.
In Peru, it is relatively easy to impeach a president within the boundaries of the constitution. Its Congress must declare its head of state as “morally unfit” by a two-thirds majority. Just like that, Peru has conducted impeachment trials against two presidents within less than three years. Vaguely defined grounds for ouster were lastly felt by Vizcarra who was accused of having accepted bribes from a construction company as governor of the Moquegua-region where he held office from 2011 to 2014.
“This is a new attempt to generate instability in the country” claimed Vizcarra who had already faced an impeachment trial in mid-September and denied any wrongdoing. Vizcarra agreed on further investigations into the accusations against him. However, Congress made short work of the entire case and immediately declared him immoral, unable to run the country by a vote of 105 to 19. The impeached president’s anti-corruption agenda had made him a popular president in Peru – despite his few allies in Congress (or precisely because of the latter). Whether Vizcarra engaged in acts of bribery or not is unresolved. What is clear, however, is that members of Congress dismissed him because of their interests. More than half of Vizcarra’s opponents are themselves accused of corruption. His successor, who barely held office for five days, had been leading the accusations and impeachment trial.
Since 2001, all of Peru’s presidents – Merino, Vizcarra, Kuczynski, Humala, García and Toledo – have either been accused or arrested in the face of corruption. This might look relatively harmless in comparison to the trauma of the 80s and 90s when Peru saw itself confronted with leftist-terrorist attacks, a dictatorship and severe human rights violations. At last, the past decades have brought rapid economic growth and created a broad middle class. Nevertheless, bribery, centre-left promises turning into centre-right governments, weak social movements and strong business confederations are probably the reason for why Peruvian satisfaction with democracy is one of the lowest in Latin America – the problems that accompany illegal drug trade put aside. According to The Economist, in 2018, less than 15% of the population was satisfied with democracy.
No wonder Peruvians took to the streets inflamed with rage as their government created a political vacuum in the face of a severe recession and a pandemic that has killed more than 35,000 people. Tired of corruption and obscure rulings by Congress, they celebrated in the face of Merino’s resignation and, again, at Sagasti’s inauguration who promises to continue battling corruption. The realisation that Peruvian politics is not doomed currently echoes through the streets and empowers Peruvians all over the country.
Peru is undoubtedly facing grand challenges. But none of these challenges is Martín Vizcarra – whether the claims against him are valid or not. The challenge is a Congress that is currently eroded by corruption with the constitutional ability to turn heads of state into its puppets. The challenge also constitutes weak parties that only last as long as their presidents and members of Congress hold office (apart from the Popular Force). This, in turn, leads to weak ties between politicians and civil society and, consequently, to unsuitable political candidates, obscure coalitions and severe mistrust within the population.
The hopes placed in Sagasti are undoubtedly high; his room for political manoeuvre is not. It is down to elections in April and developments in the political landscape whether Peruvian democracy will manifest further in the future. Peruvian’s mistrust of their political institutions is more than dire. Restoring trust, further battling corruption and tackling the economic slump as well as the pandemic will be critical to a positive outlook on Peru’s democratic institutions. However, fierce protests – mainly youth-led – have shown that its population is far from political apathy and is willing to fight for the Peru they want to live in. In that sense, it seems that democracy has manifested itself in young Peruvians already, and this can hardly be undone.