Embattled government

3 September 2017

The publication of the latest GfK poll in La República on 27 August on political attitudes must have been grim reading for President Pedro Pablo Kuczynski. His popularity ratings slipped to just 19%, with 77% of those interviewed criticising his administration of the country’s affairs. Other recent polls produce different results, but the general trend is the same: downwards.

The 19% figure compares with over 60% twelve months ago. Though it may compare favourably with some other heads of state in Latin America (Brazil’s Michel Temer, for example, whose popularity is down to around 6%), it represents a severe erosion of confidence in the government, only one year into its five-year term.

That a Peruvian president’s ratings should plummet so is not unusual. During his term of office (2001-06), Alejandro Toledo’s ratings seldom rose into double digits (except right at the end when he was about to leave). A similar situation beset Alan García (2006-11) and Ollanta Humala (2011-16).

Does popularity matter? Well, yes. Its absence reflects badly on a president’s legitimacy, and makes it harder to pursue his agenda. It also encourages opponents who tend to maximise their attacks in the hope of eventually winning future elections. It creates a climate of instability which deters investment.

The situation afflicting Kuczynski is probably more worrying than for his predecessors for three reasons. The first is that the president lacks a political party in both the country and in parliament to back him up; the small number of friends he has in Congress are showing increasing signs of indiscipline. The absolute majority held by members of Keiko Fujimori’s Fuerza Popular (FP) gives it the whip hand over ministerial and other appointments.

The second is that the economy is no longer growing at the heady rates that gave those who came before Kuzcynski a certain leeway to buy off opposition and spend their way out of trouble.

The third is the growing discontent among important sections of the public sector, notably in health and education (see below), over pay and conditions. Unions have hitherto lacked the strength to pursue long periods of strike action.

The role of Fernando Zavala, who has now added running of the all-powerful Ministry of Economy and Finance (MEF) to his prime ministerial duties, is a source of criticism, even among the congressional ranks that support Kuczynski. He is seen as a consummate technocrat in a context that cries out for an experienced politician to manage political relationships. Zavala is also poorly placed to conjure up the sort of growth rates that help subdue criticism towards previous governments.

But there is also concern in some quarters, expressed with increasing frequency, about whether Kuczynski will have the capacity or even the will to last out his full five-year term. Augusto Alvarez Rodrich, usually a canny observer, drew attention last week to the decision to send Martín Vizcarra, the first vice-president and one of the few in Kuczynski’s inner circle to have a good deal of political experience, to be Peru’s ambassador in Ottawa. Was the idea to keep him out of the limelight, preserving his credentials in the event of Kuczynski being forced to resign? 

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