Fujimoristas hold key to ombudsman election

3 September 2016

What has become an almost annual ritual, Congress has once again announced that it will formally appoint a new human rights ombudsman next Tuesday, 6 September. The current ombudsman, Eduardo Vega, has led the institution ably despite being hamstrung by a protracted ‘interim’ status.

Since Vega’s predecessor Beatriz Merino stepped down in 2011, Congress has failed to achieve the absolute majority (87 votes of 130 legislators) required to formally endorse him as ombudsman. Instead, politicians of various stripes have repeatedly conspired to appoint one of their own, culminating in the dramatic events of July 2013 when the appointment of a newly-elected ombudswoman was annulled by President Ollanta Humala after nationwide street protests.

As the PSG has documented over recent years, in a sea of institutional dysfunctionality, the human rights ombudsman stands out among most public institutions in terms of both effective function and popular approval. This has also made it a target for capture by powerful partisan actors.

Previous attempts at capture have failed, largely due to disagreement among political parties themselves, as well as civil society support for the office. It falls upon Congress, as the political representatives of the citizenry, to fulfil its duty in appointing the ombudsman. However, many civil society observers maintain that the appointment process should involve popular participation, vetting of candidates, and full transparency in order to guarantee the integrity of the institution. Such safeguards have, unfortunately, largely been ignored.

Such concerns become particularly acute in the current post-election political landscape. Essentially, the fate of the new ombudsman rests with the Fujimori-supporting Fuerza Popular (FP) party bloc in Congress. This controls 73 of 130 available votes in Congress. As former Ombudsman Walter Albán has pointed out: “It is very unusual that a single political party should command almost an absolute majority. There will be no problem arriving at 87 votes. All the more reason to ensure the independence, trajectory [of the candidate] and the participation of civil society in a public contest”.

The appointment procedure has been predictably opaque. Following a closed meeting of a special congressional committee, the president of Congress announced suddenly on 23 August that only three candidates would be invited to apply: Walter Gutiérrez, proposed by Acción Popular (AP); Enrique Mendoza, proposed by Alianza para el Progreso(APP) and Samuel Abad, proposed by the Frente Amplio and civil society organisations. http://larepublica.pe/politica/796820-apra-apoyara-candidato-defensor-del-pueblo-que-alcance-mayor-consenso Eduardo Vega was excluded from the final list. The proposal of the left-wing Frente Amplio (with 20 legislators) to hold a public contest was overruled. The vote, initially announced to be held on 1 September, was subsequently delayed to 6 September to allow for internal party consultation with the candidates.

As well as being recognised as one of the leading constitutional lawyers in the region, Abad has an impressive track record of robust legal advocacy on human rights issues in Peru. Notably, during his role as deputy ombudsman for constitutional affairs (1996-2007) he repeatedly clashed with the Fujimori administration and the military on alleged human rights violations. This does not endear him to Fujimori’s supporters. For his part, Mendoza, a former president of the judiciary and of the Jurado Nacional de Elecciones (JNE) reportedly has the support only of the nine APP legislators.

That leaves Gutiérrez as clear front runner. He is thought to have sufficient cross-party support to take him easily over the threshold from FP (73 votes), President Kuczynski’s Peruanos por el Kambio (18 votes) and AP (5 votes). elcomercio.pe/politica/congreso/eleccion-defensor-pueblo-manos-fujimorismo-noticia-1927366

Gutiérrez is a familiar name to those who have watched the travails of the ombudsman’s office, having previously failed in an APRA-orchestrated bid to have him appointed in 2011. APRA (with five votes) has already indicated that they will be supporting his candidature again, stressing his independence. http://larepublica.pe/politica/798003-bancada-aprista-votara-por-walter-gutierrez-para-defensor-del-pueblo

Human rights advocates are deeply worried, and not just because of Gutiérrez’s alleged links to APRA and the Fujimoristas. They flag his role as an APRA-appointed government representative on the much-criticised special commission appointed to look into the deadly Bagua conflict of 2009. They also highlight his apparent bias during his time as president of the Electoral Ethics Tribunal in the recent presidential elections. The tribunal controversially ruled to exclude APP candidate César Acuña. However, it conspicuously failed to rule on allegations that FP candidates had engaged in the vote buying of which Acuña was criticised.

This time next week, following over five years of intransigence, delay and congressional horse-trading, there may be a new ombudsman in office. As El Comercio has reported, what makes the occasion extraordinary is that for the first time since the election of the first ombudsman, Jorge Santistevan, in 1996, the fate of the institution will once again be back in the hands of the Fujimoristas. Against all expectations, Santistevan built an enduring institutional symbol of Peru’s democratic aspirations. Will history repeat itself? Or will Fujimori have the last laugh?

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  • PSG Aims

    The Peru Support Group exists to promote social inclusion, sustainable development and the observance of human rights in Peru. To that end the PSG highlights shortcomings in observance of established norms, whether international or local in nature, in its research, advocacy and publications. In so doing, it underscores the relationships that exist within the political system, how institutions work, and the effectiveness of policies that aim to reduce poverty and inequality within the context of sustainable development.

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