Exit Villanueva as prime minister

11 March 2019

For some commentators it was a huge surprise; for others it was just a matter of time. On 8 March, César Villanueva formally announced that he was resigning as president of the Council of Ministers. President Martín Vizcarra announced shortly afterwards that his resignation had been accepted. It remains moot whether he ‘jumped’ or was ‘pushed’ from above.

Villanueva’s exit opens the way for a cabinet reshuffle. New appointments are expected for this week, possibly Wednesday. It is unclear who will replace Villanueva, but (coming on International Women’s Day) it seems likely to be a woman. As of 10 March, one possibility seemed to be Miriam Morales, one of Vizcarra’s closest political advisors over the recent past.

For many commentators Villanueva’s departure is an attempt to boost the president’s flagging voting ratings. But it is hardly a moment of political crisis. Even though his popularity may have slumped since the beginning of the year, his ratings are still in the mid-50% range according to a variety of pollsters. Other Latin American leaders would envy such ratings.

Villanueva’s popularity has never matched that of Vizcarra, but he is widely viewed as having been a reliable cabinet chief, having played a significant role in Vizcarra’s success. He became prime minister shortly after Vizcarra took office last March. He has thus held the office for a little under a year, a reasonably long tenure if compared with some of his predecessors.

Although the government’s crusade against corruption remains one of the key political issues of the day, the Villanueva cabinet is seen as somewhat ‘grey’ in its public profile, failing to capture the public imagination in what it does. The failure effectively to rebuild damaged infrastructure caused by the El Niño phenomenon two years ago is seen as an obvious problem; more so because of new damage caused by unusual rainfall patterns, flooding and landslides this year across the Andes.

Once a new cabinet is announced, the incoming prime minister is constitutionally required to address Congress with the government’s programme and seek a congressional vote of confidence. It seems highly unlikely that a vote will be refused; were it to happen it would enable Vizcarra to dissolve Congress and call fresh legislative elections.

The following few weeks will see the announcement of the recommendations of a special commission of experts on political reforms, led by Fernando Tuesta. The commission’s conclusions have been kept under wraps until Vizcarra has the time to study them and their implications. These reforms will have to be enacted through congressional legislation, not least because some may involve constitutional reforms. They may well run into opposition from the pro-Fujimori Fuerza Popular, still the largest party in Congress.

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