PPK out, Vizcarra in: a change of direction?

24 March 2018

Well, in the end he resigned before he was pushed out. Pedro Pablo Kuczynski announced his departure on 21 March and Martin Vizcarra, hitherto the country’s first vice-president, was sworn in to replace him on 23 March. In the event, 105 members of Congress approved his resignation, with 12 voting against and three abstaining.

At the last minute, Kuczynski threatened to withdraw his resignation if a paragraph in the text of the resolution accusing him of being ‘a traitor to the fatherland’ was not removed. It was finally dropped from the text.

In his speech to Congress, Vizcarra said that rooting out corruption would be the priority for his government which would work in the interests of “the most needy”. He appealed to collaboration across political divides. He promised to appoint a wholly new cabinet.

A discreet man, Vizcarra’s message was therefore encouraging. So far he has kept his options open. His is a blank canvass on to which different political factions are projecting their hopes and fears. His political skills are likely to be put to the test in the days and weeks that come.

What prompted Kuczynski to resign rather than face an impeachment vote in Congress was the near certainty of defeat. The appearance of videos showing his supporters offering members of Congress juicy public works contracts in return for their support in the impeachment vote was just too much for some to swallow.

Even a couple of days before, it had seemed probable that Kuczynski would survive impeachment once again, albeit narrowly. But the videos sufficed to convince previous supporters like Gino Costa and Alberto de Belaunde that the president and his allies had finally overstepped the mark in their determination to stay in power. APRA’s Jorge del Castillo also said that he had changed his mind and would vote for impeachment.

Vizcarra will not inherit an easy situation. He will need to establish some sort of coalition in government. To ignore the opposition in Congress, whether the right-wing Fuerza Popular (FP) or the left-wing Frente Amplio and Nuevo Perú is no longer a realistic option. Vizcarra’s choice of cabinet members will give us some pointers as to his coalition strategy.

One option is to forge a working majority in Congress bringing together the left-wing parties, centrist or centre-right ones (like Acción Popular and Alianza por el Progreso and Peruanos por el Kambio) and the Fuerza Popular dissidents around Kenji Fujimori. Together they have slightly more than half the seats in Congress. But that looks unlikely to succeed; other than dislike of FP there could be little or no shared political outlook.

The other option is to look to the right-wing as represented by FP. Including some Keiko supporters in the cabinet; this may be the price that Vizcarra has to pay to underpin his administration politically. But any support from that quarter will not be unconditional and may prove transitory.

A further alternative would be to call fresh elections, but absent a new major crisis this now looks unlikely. Nuevo Perú’s Verónika Mendoza has called for this, but it could require a constitutional amendment and that would take time and require majority support in Congress.

New elections would also mean little without a thorough overhaul of the existing electoral and party systems to correct the sort of vices that have occurred in the recent past. For many in Congress, especially on the pro-Fujimori benches, this is an unappealing option.

The feeling in the country, post-Kuczynski and post-Odebrecht, is ‘que se vayan todos’. Though such sentiments are by no means new, they appear ever more widespread. Demonstrators marched in the streets of Lima on 22 March to this end. Opinion polls suggest that nearly half of those consulted would prefer a fresh general election.

As was the case with the fall of Fujimori in 2000, what is needed now is a radical policy overhaul to re-democratise the country, crack down on corruption and give policy preference to the interests of the many, not just the very few. On that occasion, under the interim administration of Valentín Paniagua (2000-01), important reforms were initiated, though one-by-one de-activated under the subsequent Toledo government (2001-06).

Vizcarra’s first words to Congress as president will prove difficult to honour. He will come under pressure from the all-powerful business community to follow the same neoliberal agenda as his predecessor. He will face a recalcitrant judiciary that responds more to corrupt than ethical stimuli. He will confront opposition to any real agenda for change from a parliamentary majority that is deeply conservative.

The chances of a return to the reforming zeal of the sort that typified the Paniagua era look slight.

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