PERU’S CONSTITUTION makes it relatively easy for Congress to get rid of a president it doesn’t like. The legislature need only decide that he or she is “morally unfit”, and by a two-thirds majority of its single chamber evict the chief executive from the Pizarro Palace. On November 9th, by a vote of 105 to 19 with four legislators abstaining, Congress did just that to Martín Vizcarra. That marks the second time in three years that the legislature has toppled a president. (Mr Vizcarra took over from Pedro Pablo Kuczynski, who quit before he could be impeached.)
Manuel Merino, who was Congress’s speaker until he took over as president on November 10th, will probably hold on to the office until his term expires next July. But that does not mean Peru will enjoy stability. It is dealing with an outbreak of covid-19 that has killed 35,000 people. As a share of the population, that is the third-worst in the world. The economy contracted by 15.7% in the first eight months of 2020, compared with the same period a year earlier, and is expected to shrink by 12% for the full year. There is little reason to believe that the presidential and congressional elections scheduled for next April, in which by law none of the current office-holders may seek to hold on to their jobs, will produce leaders who can manage the economy or the pandemic better.
Mr Vizcarra fell over allegations that he took kickbacks from public-works projects during his one term as governor of the southern department of Moquegua from 2011 to 2014. Although he clearly has questions to answer, nothing has been proved. His critics say he has been meddling in the judiciary to avoid prosecution and to harm his foes. In his 50-minute self-defence before Congress, Mr Vizcarra agreed that an investigation was warranted but said it should wait until he finished his term. Chaos would follow his ousting, he warned.
Rather than debate the merits of the case against him, lawmakers denounced his ethics and his handling of the pandemic. After the vote Mr Vizcarra’s supporters accused Mr Merino of staging a coup, but he went quietly. He declared his innocence and said he would go home “with my head held high”. As he left the palace residents of Lima banged pots and pans to oppose his removal. Several thousand people gathered near Congress and outside the capital on November 10th to protest. Some were arrested. More than three-quarters of Peruvians opposed his impeachment, according to one survey.
It is the latest crisis for a political system whose prestige and institutions have been ground down by allegations of graft. All of Peru’s presidents since 2001 have been ensnared in one way or another by the scandal surrounding Odebrecht, a Brazilian construction firm that bribed politicians across Latin America. Two former presidents are under house arrest; one is at liberty while he awaits trial; a fourth committed suicide to avoid arrest. Keiko Fujimori, until recently the most powerful opposition leader, is awaiting trial. The allegations against Mr Vizcarra were the result of a tentative plea bargain by suspects in the Odebrecht investigations.
Peruvians see corruption as the country’s biggest problem, even ahead of the pandemic, according to opinion polls. But they regard Mr Vizcarra as part of the solution. His approval ratings rarely dropped below 50%, and averaged 58% in the three main polls published in October. To many, his war with Congress looked like a valiant battle against graft.
Last year, when Congress resisted enacting political reforms proposed by Mr Vizcarra, he found a pretext to dissolve it and call new legislative elections. The vote in January this year did not produce a more pliant body. The nine parties represented in the chamber extend from the far left of the political spectrum to the religious fundamentalist right. Mr Vizcarra had hoped for support from a reasonable centre, composed of about 70 lawmakers. But from the beginning the new Congress rowed with him over how to handle the pandemic and the economic crisis it provoked.
Congress made an abortive attempt to impeach him in September, when recordings leaked that appeared to show him meddling in an investigation of contracts between the government and a folk singer who had given him political support. This month’s attempt looked like a long shot at first. It succeeded after Mr Vizcarra angered congressmen by pointing out that many of them, too, are under investigation.
Peruvians now worry that Mr Merino will seek to postpone the election in order to continue enjoying the spoils of office. Others fear an orgy of populism in a previously well-managed economy, in the expectation that this might benefit presidential candidates who are either in Congress or have allies there. Mr Vizcarra’s finance minister, María Antonieta Alva, had fought tenaciously to block populist measures, such as early withdrawals from the pay-as-you-go public pension system (with a fiscal cost of up to 2% of GDP) and a freeze of repayments of bank debts. She has now resigned, along with the rest of Mr Vizcarra’s cabinet. The price of Peru’s foreign bonds slumped after the impeachment vote and the sol sank against the dollar.
Mr Merino, a two-time congressman from Tumbes, the smallest department, has given few clues to how he will handle Peru’s overlapping crises. He has promised to appoint an ideologically diverse cabinet and to work closely with Congress. His most important pledge in a 13-minute inauguration speech was that elections will happen on schedule.
There is little reason to believe that his successor will have an easier time governing, even if he or she is free from suspicions of wrongdoing. Twenty-four people have declared their candidacy for the presidency. None is backed by a strong political party. The eventual winner is unlikely to be able to elicit co-operation from a fragmented Congress. It may find an excuse to usher Peru’s next president out of the door.