Breaking point

29 September 2019

The constitutional train-crash between the fujimorista-dominated Congress and the executive has been a long time in gestation but is now happening. This Monday, 30 September, Prime Minister Salvador del Solar will present a bill to modify the law governing elections to the Constitutional Tribunal (TC), attaching to it a vote of confidence which, if the bill is rejected, would enable President Martín Vizcarra to dissolve Congress and call for fresh legislative elections. The reasons for this action were set out by Vizcarra in a speech to the nation on 27 September.

Also on Monday, and in spite of Vizcarra’s move, the fujimoristas and their allies plan to vote in new members of the TC which would give them effective control over the institution. Much will therefore depend on whether the government’s bill is debated before (or after) the vote appointing new members to the TC.

On the streets of Lima, there will be massive demonstrations at what is seen as a further power grab by the right-wing opposition in Congress designed to weaken the executive prior to a possible attempt to remove Vizcarra.

Fuerza Popular provokes the crisis
On 25 September, Fuerza Popular (FP) and its allies in the congressional constitution commission declared outright war by shelving the proposal, announced in Vizcarra’s Independence Day speech on 28 July, to bring forward the date of the 2021 general election to April 2020.

In response, in his address last Friday, Vizcarra attacked the Congress for drawing up a list of candidates to the TC in a half-hour session of known sympathisers with FP’s agenda. He argued that elections to the TC, which has the key role of interpreting the constitution, should be “plural, public and transparent”. He hinted at corrupt influences being brought to bear on the outgoing TC membership.

A sitting member of the TC (Marianella Ledesma) suggested that she had been pressured to ensure a unanimous verdict in the case of Keiko Fujimori (who has appealed against her detention to the TC) in return for her maintaining her seat on the tribunal.

Of the eleven pre-selected candidates, Congress would pick six to fill the vacancies on the seven-member body. Each candidate must receive 87 votes, or two thirds of the full Congress. The move by Congress has been widely criticised, not least by the Washington-based Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, as violating norms of transparency and proper consideration in what amounts to an overt power grab.

Fujimorista narrative
Responding to Vizcarra’s announcement of a confidence vote on a bill amending election procedures to the TC, Rosa Bartra, the fujimorista stalwart who chairs the congressional constitution commission, suggested that the Congress had kept “scrupulously” to the letter of the law and would proceed with Monday’s election to the TC. The timing of the presentation of the bill, she suggested, would be up to the leaders of the parties represented in Congress.

As we saw last week, the TC has it in its power to order the release of Keiko Fujimori from jail as well as call a halt to the Odebrecht investigation in which Keiko stands accused of violating election rules by receiving illicit funding from the Brazilian construction firm. Further, a fujimorista-dominated TC threatened to thwart the attempt by the executive to fight back against the majority in Congress by attaching a vote of confidence to the legislation regarding the bringing forward of elections.

With the wind in their sails, the fujimoristas and their allies in APRA and other small right-wing parties, have been preparing for an ultimate showdown: a vote to force the president to vacate his office. This would also require a two-thirds majority in the Congress. In 2018, faced with such an outcome, then president Pedro Pablo Kuczynski was forced to resign, paving the way for Vizcarra to take over.

The strategy adopted by the fujimoristas has been to taunt the government to overstep the bounds of the constitution.

The government’s response has been hesitant, however, seeking (where possible) to negotiate with its opponents in Congress. But, as was probably clear from the word go, the opposition’s willingness to negotiate has been little more than a delaying tactic. Feeling cheated by the 2016 election result (with Kuczynski narrowly beating Keiko on the second round), the fujimoristas have been consistent in their objectives to wrest power, first from Kuczynski and then (when he proved less than compliant) from Vizcarra.

Public protest, the Venice Commission and the UN
Public opinion has long sided with the executive in this constitutional clash, given the (to put it mildly) shady reputation of many fujimorista members of Congress. There is also a climate of rejection of the political class as a whole (‘que se vayan todos’ ), a mood that led to Vizcarra’s move to bring forward the date of the next election. Monday’s march will test the extent of public hostility to the fujimoristas and their plans. “What’s at stake here is the assault on and capture of certain institutions by a mafioso group” to quote left-wing deputy Indira Huilca.

Within hours of the constitutional commission’s shelving the executive’s bill to bring forward the elections, thousands of demonstrators poured on to the streets of Lima and other cities in protest demanding the immediate closure of Congress.

Meanwhile, a delegation of the Venice Commission (an advisory body dependent on the Council of Europe) was in Peru last week at the request of congressional president, Pedro Olaechea. Its presence had been requested as a thinly-disguised attempt to string out the process of negotiations over the executive bill to bring forward elections. Having seen the unceremoniously ditching of government’s attempt to bring forward elections (the constitutionality of which was the reason they were invited to Peru), they may be forgiven for feeling somewhat abused.

Meanwhile, President Martín Vizcarra used his podium at the UN General Assembly on 24 September to lambast what he described as the curse of corruption in Peru and elsewhere before bringing forward his planned return to Lima. He outlined proposals to hold an extraordinary session of the General Assembly on corruption in the first half of 2021. “We hope that the frontal struggle against corruption and impunity will constitute a global crusade”, he said.

He went on to argue that the level of corruption in evidence in many countries constituted “a latent risk to the future of democracy and governability” and was “a source of extreme repudiation (hartazgo)” on the part of citizens.

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