(above) What dissolution looks like. Photographer: Cris Bouroncle/AFP via Getty Images


Peru’s President Tries to Solve a Latin American Riddle

What happens when lawmakers, not leaders, are the rogues-in-chief?

By Mac Margolis

Latin America’s return to democracy has hit many craters, mostly at the hands of rogue presidents who centralize power and trample the law. But what happens when the lawmakers are the rogues?

Peru may reveal the answer to that riddle. After months of clashes, a willful president and a crony legislature hit an impenetrable impasse. Repeatedly thwarted in his attempts to reform politics and pass anti-graft legislation, President Martin Vizcarra dissolved Congress last week and called for fresh elections. Congress retaliated by voting to dissolve his presidency and installed the vice president in his place. Her tenure lasted 36 hours. Now one of Latin America’s most prosperous nations has a legislature in limbo, its leader behind guarded palace doors, and Peruvians in the streets celebrating a revolt with no endgame.

Is this 1992 all over again? Not likely. That year, strongman Alberto Fujimori sent tanks to close Congress, muted the opposition and intimidated everyone else. He ruled by fiat for the next eight years, and is now in jail for graft and human rights abuses. Fujimori’s undisguised goal: smother democratic institutions and stay in power. Vizcarra’s, apparently, was to fix them and leave. “This is not a man attacking Congress to accumulate more power. An obstructionist Congress forced his hand and now he’s trying to govern without them,” said Jorge Valladares, a Peru scholar at the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance.

Constitutional scholars and political wonks are torn, and the whole matter might better be solved in the constitutional court. The problem is, the court itself was part of the power struggle.

The immediate trigger to the showdown was a months-long quarrel over nominations for the country’s highest bench, where six of seven sitting judges are due to be replaced. Vizcarra lobbied Congress to make the selection process more transparent and enhance popular participation.

Congress ignored him and went ahead to vote on new magistrates, starting — tellingly — with the cousin of the congressional speaker, an opposition stalwart.

That’s a familiar trick: From Bolivia to Venezuela, lawmakers have struggled in vain as rogue executives pack the courts to lend a legal sheen to their excesses. In Peru, it’s Congress trying to capture the court. “We know it’s a red flag when a president tries to control the judiciary,” said Javier Corrales, a Latin America scholar at Amherst College. “But now we have a case of a legislature misbehaving. It would be nice if we could say that too is undemocratic. We’re not used to calling for holding Congress in check.”

Two ghosts loom over the immediate fray and explain much of Peru’s current political dysfunction. One is Fujimorismo, the former dictator’s toxic brand of right-wing populism now championed by his daughter Keiko. The other, related specter is Odebrecht SA, the giant Brazilian construction contractor that has been tied to kickbacks and vote-buying schemes across Latin America. Four of Vizcarra’s immediate predecessors were tarred in the Odebrecht investigations, with former President Alan Garcia committing suicide rather than go to jail.

It was the Odebrecht scandal that hoisted Vizcarra to office, when in 2018 President Pedro Pablo Kuczynski was implicated and resigned. His fall energized Fujimorism, which had never gotten over its narrow defeat to Kuczynski in elections two years before.

As it happened, the Odebrecht case also ravaged the opposition, implicating higher-ups among the Fujimorista majority Popular Force party, starting with Keiko, who awaits trial for graft behind bars. Her party at first saw Vizcarra as a more pliant stand-in — perhaps even a definitive get-out-of-jail card for Keiko and her ailing father. (Kuczynski had pardoned the senior Fujimori in a gambit to appease opponents and survive an impeachment drive, but Peru’s Supreme Court sent him back to prison.) Vizcarra had other ideas. A provincial governor beholden to none of Peru’s legacy parties, he tapped the gathering popular funk to launch sweeping reforms targeting the unloved political establishment.

It took a while, but Vizcarra found his agenda: white-collar crime and political corruption. “At some point he decided that his government would only survive by confronting Congress,” said Valladares.

For the moment, Vizcarra has the upper hand. Congressional elections are set for Jan. 26. A permanent commission has been empowered to step in for the sidelined Congress, and Vizcarra has replaced most of his cabinet. The Peruvian sol even gained slightly amid the turmoil, and the country’s bonds remain among the emerging markets’ safest bets.

Peru is anything but pacified, however. Thanks to citizen unrest, the new Congress to be seated next year will have fresh faces but a short tether. They will serve only until the next scheduled general election, in 2021, which leaves them little time for reforms, never mind redeeming the country’s least favorite public institution: A poll last week found that 89.5% of Peruvians agreed Congress should be dissolved.

But here’s the paradox: Playing the avenging outsider has endeared Vizcarra to a country wearied of politics as usual. Yet to avert the next crisis and marshal reform, Vizcarra may have to hold his nose and join the scrum. “Vizcarra has an agenda and public sentiment behind him,” said Valladares. “To put that agenda to work he needs a party or social movement, and so far he doesn’t seem interested.”

A joke recently circulating in Lima was that more than a righteous leader, Peru needs Captain Pantoja, the soldier hero in Mario Vargas Llosa’s eponymous comedic novel who is tasked with running a brothel to revive flagging troop morale. Sadly, Pantoja is not on the ballot. However, hopes are that the man who played him on screen, Salvador del Solar — who quit acting for politics, became Vizcarra’s prime minister and last week outmaneuvered Congress to engineer the no-confidence vote — may be ready for a bigger role.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
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Mac Margolis at mmargolis14@bloomberg.net

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James Gibney at jgibney5@bloomberg.net