On 11 April 2021, the Republic of Peru will hold general elections. However, the elections have been overshadowed by the November 2020 Parliamentary Coup and the massive police violence against protesters who have been demonstrating against the controversial outcast of the former President Martín Vizcarra by the Congress. PRIF student research assistant Laura Fischer had the opportunity to speak with Carlos Felipe López Vásquez, a Human Rights activist and a professor for Public International Law at the Technical University of Peru, about the background of the political and constitutional crisis.
According to the V-Democracy Pandemic Backsliding Risk Index, Peru is classified at high-risk of democratic backsliding due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The country had suffered one of the worldwide severest crises during the pandemic. Despite the early and strict implementation of a nationwide lockdown in March 2020, Peru was the Latin-American country with the highest COVID-19 death rate in March 2021. Amidst the crisis, a long-running struggle between the executive and the legislative that has held the Peruvian government in a state of instability since 2016 has boiled up again. Carlos López discovers similarities to other recent political crises in Latin America. According to him, the States of both Chile and Peru are based on constitutions deriving from the 20th century dictatorships, which are now put into question by reformative political movements. As Lopéz puts it: “There is a progressive way of governing, represented by technicians who are specialized in reforming the state. And there is another political trend opposing any progressive agenda and reforms, seeking to maintain the status quo.” Peru’s political and constitutional crisis is intertwined with corruption, a corroded party system, and rising populism. In several Latin-American countries, a new model of legitimizing repressive regimes by ‘democratic blending’ has been observed. Whether Peru is to serve as an example remains to be seen in the aftermath of the upcoming elections.
Peru’s Political and Constitutional Crises
According to article 113 of the Peruvian constitution, the presidential seat would only vacate because of the President’s death, moral or physical incapacity – in which case the renouncement would be declared and subsequently accepted by Congress –, or leaving the country at no notice. Additionally, article 117 serves to break a dictatorial presidency by vacating the President on the grounds of treason, unsubstantiated dissolution of the parliament, or impediment of general elections.
The Peruvian constitution was adopted by the authoritarian government of Alberto Fujimori after the 1992 Constitutional Crisis, in which he had dissolved the Congress and suspended the judiciary’s constitutional rights in order to preserve his hold on power. After his downfall in 2000, Fujimori received a 25-year sentence in prison for his role in killings, enforced disappearances, and kidnappings in 2009. His daughter Keiko Fujimori is the current President of the far-right party Popular Force and narrowly lost the run-off to Pedro Pablo Kuczynski in the 2016 presidential election. The party took a majority of 73 of the 130 seats in Congress, Peru’s legislative body, and formed the opposition to the executive government. The Fujimorista-dominated Congress and the Kuczynski administration have barely managed to achieve consensus over legislative matters. Carlos López reports: “Popular Force has never been a responsible opposition: They always sought to blockade every reform that the Kuczynski government presented.” After scandals of corruption and facing a second impeachment vote, Kuczynski resigned the presidency in March 2018 and was succeeded by his Vice President Martín Vizcarra, who himself became an obstacle to the Fujimoristas’ political agenda due to his prioritization of anti-corruption reforms.
The constitution grants both the legislative and the executive the right to a motion of no confidence against members of each branch. According to Carlos Lopéz, “this democratic mechanism became a political weapon for Congress: They coerced the executive into carrying out their proposals by holding the confidence of the ministries hostage.” Congress had already refused a vote of no-confidence in 2017 during the administration of Pedro Pablo Kuczynski. The President has the capacity to dissolve Congress if it has refused its confidence in two cabinets. In 2019, Martín Vizcarra proposed to prepone elections in order to lift the political deadlock. Congress encountered by preparing the appointment of judges to Peru’s Constitutional Court, who were to ideologically reflect the Fujimorista-majority of the Congress. To obstruct the opposition’s power game, Vizcarra proposed a reform towards more transparency of the appointment of tribunal judges and enacted a constitutional procedure that would bring a motion of no confidence towards Congress if they refused to cooperate. As Congress refused, Vizcarra declared the dissolution of the parliament, while Congress interpreted this move as unconstitutional and declared the inauguration of the second Vice President Mercedes Aráoz. Due to strong public support, Vizcarra prevailed and announced parliamentary elections which were held in January 2020. Aráoz receded from the presidency after one day in office.
The results of the 2020 parliamentary election confirmed the fragmentation of the Peruvian political map. While most sitting parties suffered losses similar to those incurred by Popular Force, who only held 15 seats of its previous majority, and Peru’s oldest socialist party APRA (American Popular Revolutionary Alliance), who lacked the necessary votes to enter, social-liberal Popular Action and social-conservative Alliance for Progress, increased their seats to 25 and 22 respectively. Small alternative parties entered Congress and provided radical voices a platform for voters, amongst them the sectarian party FREPAP (Agricultural People’s Front of Peru).
‘Democratic Blending’ and the November 2020 Parliamentary Coup
Using democratic institutions as tools of attaining and eventually maintaining power, and legitimizing authority of a repressive regime, has been referred to as ‘democratic blending’. The November 2020 Parliamentary Coup suggests such a tendency within branches of the Peruvian government. According to Carlos López, Congress members had subtly constructed and spread a narrative about Martín Vizcarra’s alleged involvement in corruption, basing these claims mainly on photomontages and incriminating WhatsApp voice messages. After a lack of necessary votes in a first impeachment proceeding in September 2020, the second impeachment achieved 105 votes to vacate the President in November 2020. On 9 November 2020, Congress voted for the removal of President Martín Vizcarra on grounds of his alleged ‘moral incapacity’ to lead the country based on a disputed clause of article 113, which derives from earlier centuries and refers to mental incapacities. “Of course does it not refer to having any moral incapacities,” clarifies Carlos Lopéz, “because morals are very open to interpretation.“ Vizcarra’s ejection was widely identified as a ‘parliamentary coup’ and opposed by the majority of the population. However, the judiciary branch of the government, the Constitutional Court, refused a lawsuit to determine whether Congress’ action was unconstitutional, and thereby forfeited the enforcement of the rule of law and lowered the margin for Congress to vacate a President.
“In the absence of another Vice President,” explains Carlos Lopéz, “it is established that the elected President of the Congress will assume power when the seat of the President vacates. Congress knew that if they were to expel Vizcarra, Merino would assume power.” Merino was severely criticized for his handling of the crisis and the brutal repression of the protest by police forces which had led to the death of two young protesters. Amnesty International called on the Peruvian government not to apply the Police Protection Law (No. 31102) which had been approved by Congress as part of the security measures during the COVID-19 emergency and created conditions of legal impunity for police officers. Lopéz suggests that Congress had a clear agenda: “I believe there was a plan to outset Vizcarra, and I also believe there was a plan of how to deal with the protests. During the protests, there were undercover agents, there was an arbitrary use of force and an indiscriminate use of tear gas to disperse the protesters”. Merino resigned in response to nationwide protests after only a week in office. On 17 November 2020, as the third President in one week, centrist technocrat Francisco Sagasti was given command of the ship of state towards the upcoming general elections. Peru’s general attorney has opened investigations to clarify the accountability for human rights violations of the Merino administration.
General Elections Amidst a Crisis of Democracy
Carlos López does not consider the creation of a general assembly to rewrite the constitution, as the Chilean population recently voted for in a referendum, as a universal remedy that will enable major socio-political changes in Peru. “In my opinion, asking for a general assembly to create a new constitution will not change the situation of Peru, which is based on a deeper societal phenomenon,” he explains, “the constitution has received many amendments and, as I think, is fine now. What is not fine is the political culture and not to have a very well-constructed political system.” Lopez detects profiteering and corruption as the central problem. 68 of 130 Congress members face open criminal investigations. One month prior to the elections, Keiko Fujimori was charged for corruption and with her 41 other persons, which led the judge to claim for the dissolution of her party Popular Force, without success. On top of that, five former Presidents have been sentenced to jail in the recent years, of which one has committed suicide in face of his arrest. Lopéz concludes: “This kind of politics does not allow for very serious talks about the constitution.”
The lack of political leaders and parties to generate trust amongst the population is reflected by the Institute of Peruvian Studies’ survey on voting intentions. Amongst 18 candidates, Keiko Fujimori (9,8 percent), Hernando de Soto (9,8 percent), and ultraconservative Rafael López Aliaga (8,4 percent) on the right, and Yonhy Lescano (8,2 percent), Verónika Mendoza (7,3 percent), and Pedro Castillo (6,6 percent) on the left of the political spectrum, are leading the polls. The numbers remain altogether low, which suggests a run-off election between two of the six ideologically diverse candidates. According to the current polls, it seems there is a potential for what Carlos Lopéz identified as “worst case scenario”: a run-off between a center-right and an extreme-right candidate. The outlook for the congressional election is as fragmented. After leading parties Popular Action (9,1 percent) on the center-left and We are Peru (6,7 percent) on the center-right have clearly lost support, none of the listed parties reaches 10 percent. On the far-right, FREPAP, Popular Force, and Popular Renewal, a party founded only in October 2020, hold together over 18 percent. With the rest of the percentage points dominated by center-right and right parties, it is likely that the same political sector could control Congress, the executive and the Constitutional Court, and thereby paralyze anti-corruption investigations, threaten democracy and the rule of law, endanger gender and environmental justice, limit education and indigenous rights, and neglect the pandemic containment.