Battle lines drawn, again

17 August 2019

You might be forgiven for thinking we’ve been here before. As the new legislature begins, the fujimoristas have arranged their guns in such a way as to pound President Martín Vizcarra’s plans to bring forward the date of presidential and legislative elections to next April.

With its majority in Congress (in conjunction with allies), Fuerza Popular, the fujimorista party, has retained control of key congressional committees, notably the constitution committee, which has the role in the first instance of debating and deciding on the fate of Vizcarra’s proposed referendum. And most notably, it has insisted that its diehard Rosa Bartra retains her role as the president of the committee.

The appointment last week of presidents of other Fuerza Popular controlled committees suggests that the opposition party is in no mood to dance to the music coming from the executive.

The prospect therefore opens up of FP and its allies using further delaying tactics, in the knowledge that the timetable for the referendum and election is extremely tight. For his part, Vizcarra has reiterated that the passage of enabling legislation is a matter of urgency and he expects Congress to act with haste over the coming week.

As was the case when he presented his initial political reform package back in June, Vizcarra’s ultimate weapon is to make the passage of enabling legislation part of a question of confidence in his government which, if denied, would enable him to dissolve Congress.

As we noted when he gave his Independence Day speech on 28 July announcing the bringing forward of elections, Vizcarra at that point shrank back from playing this trump card. If Congress fails to play ball, as seems likely, he may well regret not having been tougher in his response.

In his dealings with Congress, Vizcarra knows he has public opinion overwhelmingly on his side. Repeated opinion polls show just what voters think of the Congress as currently construed.

For Marco Arana, leader of the Frente Amplio, the battle between Congress and the executive has nothing to do with the separation of powers, rather with “the way in which the majority in Congress has decided to shield terrible cases of corruption and to undermine the struggle against corruption”.

If Vizcarra is forced to abandon his plans to bring forward elections it would deal a mortal blow to his credibility as president.

Meanwhile, the simultaneous battle over Tía María continues to rage, with Vizcarra’s decision to rescind the license to develop the mine the subject of bitter criticism in business circles. A tape recording of his meeting with regional mayors was put in the public domain by the newspaper Expreso in which the president had promised them to retract the license (well in advance of his official announcement) in return for their collaboration in justifying the decision. 

Responding to this, a number of Congress members, most notably APRA’s Mauricio Mulder, had called for a vote to force Vizcarra’s resignation. In practice, this rebellion was quickly snuffed out as it became obvious that such a recall would never receive sufficient support in Congress. But it showed, as we pointed out last week, the desire to take advantage of other issues in order to discredit the president and to distract public attention from the election issue. See the nice cartoon by Carlín in La República

On a less dramatic note, on 15 August, the plenum in Congress passed a resolution that obliged Justice Minister Vicente Zeballos to come before the legislature to explain the reasons why the prisons authority had released a hit-man from jail. If Congress decides to censure Zeballos, it would be a way of deploying its constitutional role in forcing a key cabinet member to resign. Other cabinet members could also be exposed to congressional vengeance, although the minister of mining last week escaped censure on the Tía María issue. 

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