In Brief

Peru’s Democratic Crisis

President Martin Vizcarra’s ouster has caused turmoil and a leadership vacuum, amid economic turbulence and severe pandemic strains. Why has Peru endured so much political upheaval?

What happened?

On November 9, Peru’s Congress voted to oust President Martin Vizcarra over corruption allegations. Vizcarra announced that he would not fight the motion and quietly resigned, simply saying, “I’m going home.” Manuel Merino, head of Congress, was sworn in as president the next day, amid widespread protests over the lack of congressional deliberation and the politicized nature of Vizcarra’s removal. Just five days later, Merino also resigned, leading to congressional debate that resulted in the naming of Francisco Sagasti as the new president on November 16.

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Vizcarra and his anticorruption crusade were highly popular. Now, many have taken to the streets to decry what they see as an illegitimate transition brought about by a corrupt political class seeking to defend itself.

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As demonstrations intensified, police fired rubber bullets and tear gas into crowds, leading to the deaths of at least two protesters. Merino’s fragile government rapidly collapsed, with most of his cabinet ministers resigning their posts before he stepped down.

Who is Vizcarra?

An engineer by training, Vizcarra became a politician later in life, serving as governor of the Department of Moquegua before entering national politics. He was selected as vice president in 2016 and became head of state in 2018 when President Pedro Pablo Kuczynski resigned amid corruption allegations.

Reporters crowd around former Peruvian President Martin Vizcarra, who is wearing a blue jacket and mask and holding up his hand.  It is dark outside.
Former Peruvian President Martin Vizcarra waves to the press following his impeachment on November 9, 2020. Luka Gonzales/AFP/Getty Images

Vizcarra was one of the most popular leaders in Latin America. His public support was consistently above 50 percent in polls and even reached above 90 percent earlier this year thanks to his swift and decisive actions to contain the new coronavirus. Still, Peru has one of the world’s highest rates of COVID-19 deaths per capita due to poor public health infrastructure. Vizcarra’s opponents nevertheless accused him of gross negligence in handling the crisis.

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Why was he impeached?

The exact charge brought against Vizcarra was “permanent moral incapacity,” grounds found in Article 113 of the Peruvian Constitution. The allegation centered on speculation that Vizcarra accepted bribes from a construction company that received a public contract while he was governor of Moquegua. This was the second time that Vizcarra faced the charge: in September, he was accused of influence peddling, but the removal process failed to secure sufficient support within the legislature.

Is Vizcarra’s removal really about corruption?

Most likely not. Corruption is certainly not new to Peru, and this is not the first time that oppositionists have leveled corruption allegations to discredit the president—rightly or wrongly. All four presidents preceding Vizcarra were implicated in the Odebrecht corruption scandal. The facts of the case against Vizcarra are still unclear. The impeachment charges evolved from the testimonies of two individuals rather than an exhaustive investigation. The testimonies would be unlikely to stand on their own merits in a court of law.

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Many of Vizcarra’s supporters have branded his removal as a coup. His departure represents the climax of a long-standing political dispute between Vizcarra and a hostile legislature, which has thwarted his attempts to reform Peru’s political system and crack down on political corruption. Sixty-eight lawmakers currently face criminal investigations into corruption and other crimes, even including homicide. Merino, a conservative, was a vocal critic of Vizcarra’s policies, including on pension reform and parliamentary immunity. Merino’s critics accused him of using scorched-earth tactics for his own political gain.

What does this mean for Peru?

For now, Sagasti—a centrist lawmaker and industrial engineer from Lima who opposed Vizcarra’s removal—faces the task of quelling unrest and combating the pandemic in the run-up to the April 11 presidential election. However, a weak party system, pervasive corruption, and sharp economic contraction will constrain his ability to make headway on the country’s most pressing challenges.

More broadly, Vizcarra’s removal and the bungled succession that ensued bode poorly for democratic governance in Peru. The charge that was the basis for his impeachment has only been used successfully once before—in 2000 to remove President Alberto Fujimori, a polarizing leader responsible for crimes against humanity, corruption, and authoritarian overreach. Originally seen as a unique solution to a bona fide crisis of leadership, Article 113 is now being weaponized against a sitting executive on comparatively flimsy grounds. This sets a dangerous precedent for executive-legislative relations going forward.

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