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Brian Harper is an intern in the Latin America Studies program at the Council on Foreign Relations.
Peru was not among the bumper crop of Latin American nations scheduled to hold presidential elections in 2018. Yet with First Vice President Martín Vizcarra’s ascension to the presidency on March 23, it swiftly joined the fold of countries under new leadership in the Americas.
The changing of the political guard in Peru is playing out much as it has in other Latin American countries as of late: in a haze of corruption. Two days prior to Vizcarra’s inauguration, President Pedro Pablo Kuczynski (PPK) resigned before Peru’s unicameral Congress could impeach him for corruption. PPK joins an almost uninterrupted, thirty-year string of Peruvian politicians whose presidencies or post-presidencies were marred by scandal. His successor could be the man to break the chain, but first, Vizcarra must master the nearly impossible political terrain that undid his predecessor.
PPK was never likely to have an easy time in office. He narrowly defeated Keiko Fujimori in the 2016 presidential election. From the start, Fujimori’s Fuerza Popular party held an absolute Congressional majority, depriving PPK of a honeymoon period to enact his legislative priorities.
Last December, PPK barely survived Congress’s attempt to impeach him for hiding business dealings with Odebrecht, a Brazilian construction firm implicated in corruption cases in twelve countries. Ultimately, ten Fuerza Popular lawmakers protected him by breaking ranks and abstaining from the impeachment vote. Among them was Kenji Fujimori, Keiko’s younger brother and the son of Alberto Fujimori, the former Peruvian president languishing in prison for human rights violations and corruption.
Three days after dodging impeachment, PPK granted his authoritarian predecessor a medical pardon. Most Peruvians saw the act as a corrupt bargain rather than a humanitarian gesture. On March 20, Keiko and her allies released videos that lent credence to this theory. The footage showed Kenji offering colleagues public works funds in exchange for keeping PPK in power. With another impeachment vote imminent, the president bowed out.
In spite of the current state of affairs, Peruvians should take comfort in their institutional capacity to take on corruption. The fact that several of the country’s recent leaders have been unseated or imprisoned for graft and other unscrupulous practices suggests that while corruption remains a serious issue, perpetrators cannot operate with total impunity.
There is also reason to believe Vizcarra will be different. Largely unknown before taking office last month, his brief tenure as PPK’s first vice president and ambassador to Canada gave him government experience without tainting his name. An engineer by training, he also previously served as governor of Moquegua, where he received strong marks for improving education. In a Canadian Council for the Americas conference call, experts said Vizcarra’s blank slate could work in his favor, as could an agenda that reforms national education and, of course, systemic corruption.
That said, his success will hinge on whether he can overcome the forces that bedeviled PPK. Neither a member of Fuerza Popular nor PPK’s Peruanos Por el Kambio, Vizcarra takes power without party backing. Like PPK, he will need help from Fuerza Popular to achieve much of anything. Unfortunately, Keiko Fujimori’s presidential aspirations — as well as those of her brother — might preclude any desire to help the man they hope to succeed. If family infighting leaves the Fujimoris more focused on destroying each other than attacking Vizcarra, it could help the new president in the short term. That said, because he will need to forge unlikely friendships to accomplish much of anything, Vizcarra might find that any effort to seek political help from one sibling’s camp will ruin his standing with the other.
Navigating such tricky terrain will require the kind of political prowess PPK never demonstrated. In his initial visits and acts as president, the relatively untested Vizcarra has promised to put “Perú primero,” or Peru first. Time will tell if he can pull it off.