In the midst of a global pandemic, Peru has descended into a political crisis that has its roots in the struggle for power between the executive and the legislative. The current crisis started with the impeachment of President Martin Vizcarra (on 09 November 2020) by the Peruvian Congress over allegations of corruption and his handling of the coronavirus pandemic. Peru imposed one of the earliest and strictest lockdowns. but as it started to lift restrictions it has seen a rise in cases. As of date it has 1,029,471 confirmed cases and 38,145 deaths. It has the fifth highest number of cases after Brazil, Argentina, Colombia and Mexico. President Vizcarra had announced a stimulus package for the economy but it has been unable to meet the requirements of the people with business owners stating they either never received the money or it came too late to save their business. Despite the setbacks, people continue to positively view the president’s efforts to try and control the spread of the coronavirus. He also had the public’s support for his anti-corruption campaigns.
There were prior indications also of the tensions between President Vizcarra and the members of the Peruvian Congress. In September 2020, the President was able to overcome an impeachment resolution. However, the second impeachment resolution (November 2020) found the required support from the legislators. The resolution was supported by 105 legislators — more than the 87 votes needed for the two-thirds majority required. President Vizcarra’s impeachment from office led to the appointment of Manuel Merino, the head of the Congress as President of Peru. He was expected to lead the country as interim president till next year’s presidential elections scheduled for April 2021. However, facing public he too soon resigned from office. Thereafter, Francisco Sagasti was selected by Peru's Congress as the country's newest interim president winning 97 out of the 130 votes of the Congress defeating his rival Rocio Silva Santisteban.
The impeachment of President Vizcarra has led to protests by the people against the ‘coup’ by the Congress. The protests in Peru, unlike any seen in recent years, was fuelled largely by young people frustrated by the lack of accountability of political leaders. The protests are not just limited to cities and farmer workers have joined the protest demanding better wages derailing the harvesting of crops and transportation of produce around the country. These protests came a year after a wave of anti-government demonstrations across Latin America demanding better conditions for the poor and working class and at the end of a super cycle of elections in the Latin America and the Caribbean region (LAC), in which corruption was a common theme with voters demanding accountability for elected representatives.
Corruption remains the crux of the recent crisis in Peru. Every living former president has been accused or charged of corruption. Most cases are connected to the Odebrecht graft scandal in which the Brazilian construction giant admitted to giving out millions to politicians in exchange for lucrative public works contracts. Nearly half the members of the Peruvian Congress are also under investigation for crimes ranging from corruption to money laundering and also homicide. The reaction from the police against the protesters with some deaths has also ignited a debate on the issue of police brutality and the need for accountability among law enforcement officials.
Many Peruvians believe that Presiden Vizcarra was impeached by the Congress as his efforts to check corruption among the legislative members had wide spread public support and he had made efforts to reform the Congress and the judiciary. For example in 2019, he had removed the prosecutorial immunity granted to lawmakers. However, as he had no party support in the Congress, his efforts were stalled.
Many hope that the appointment of President Sagasti would bring peace. He and his Purple Party bloc had voted against the impeachment of President Vizcarra. This gives him a certain credibility among the protestors who have condemned the power grab by the legislature. As a senior lawmaker with experience in the World Bank he also has the support of the Congress. This puts him in a stronger position to steer the country out of the crisis. The International Monetary Fund projects a 14% decline in GDP in 2020. Peru’s mining-driven economy, one of the hardest-hit by the coronavirus pandemic, is expected to contract 12% this year - its deepest plunge in three decades according to the Peruvian economic ministry.
The WHO has warned that the pandemic is accelerating in a number of low- and middle-income countries similar to Peru – where inadequate healthcare systems are an ongoing problem, and many people are unable to feed their families without risking their lives by continuing to work unofficially. More than half of the country’s non-agricultural workforce is believed to be employed “informally” in a way that generally involves a hand-to-mouth existence and lack of legal protections, yet generates an estimated one-fifth of Peruvian GDP. For President Sagasti, the immediate requirement would be to gain the trust of the people and bring an end to the protests. His background with working with World Bank may help develop plans to fight the economic contractions. With a large number of people part of the informal economy the need of the hour is a focus on controlling the spread of the coronavirus while strengthening the economy. A continued political and constitutional crisis will further put economic recovery in a precarious position.
*Dr. Stuti Banerjee, Research Fellow, Indian Council of World Affairs.
Disclaimer: Views expressed are personal
The Hindu, “Peru economy set for 12% plunge in 2020, worst in three decades,” https://www.thehindu.com/news/international/peru-economy-set-for-12-plunge-in-2020-worst-in-three-decades/article32460862.ece#:~:text=Peru's%20mining%2Ddriven%20economy%2C%20one,Economy%20Minister%20Mar%C5%A3a%20Antonieta%20Alva, Accessed on 19 Nov. 2020
World Economci Forum, “The plight of Peru illustrates the danger of COVID-19 to developing countries,” https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2020/06/the-plight-of-peru-illustrates-the-danger-of-covid-19-to-developing-countries/, Accessed on 19 Nov. 2020