Although President Martín Vizcara’s annual Independence Day speech took 1 hour 36 minutes to deliver, it is the last six minutes for which it will be most remembered.
In his closing remarks, referring to the political reforms placed before Congress (see below), he announced the bringing forward of general elections to next year, subject to ratification of this constitutional change in a referendum. General elections were previously scheduled to take place in 2021.
The reason for this he identified clearly as the crisis brought about by the Congress’s refusal to legislate without materially changing the content of the package of political reforms presented to it in June and accepted by the plenary in a motion of confidence. Had the Congress not passed this motion of confidence, it would have faced immediate dissolution and the election of a new Congress.
Vizcarra picked out one reform (see below) which he considered had been particularly ‘disfigured’ (‘desnaturalizado’): the refusal to pass a law which would have removed from Congress the privilege of deciding when and whether its members should have their immunity from prosecution removed. The executive had recommended that this power be transferred to the Supreme Court.
The announcement of bringing forward the election unleashed a barrage of invective from the Fujimorista and Aprista benches of parliament, though it was warmly welcomed by others, including members of the two left-wing parties.
Vizcarra’s announcement is seen as a lesser weapon against Congress than proceeding with immediate dissolution. Fujimoristas, anticipating such, had sought unsuccessfully legal remedies designed to forestall such an outcome. Although perfectly in tune with the constitution (Article 134), such a dissolution, they claimed, would have been a usurpation of power, an effective coup d’état by an increasingly authoritarian president.
But the decision raises a number of unknowns: how long will it take to organise a referendum? How many of the political reforms as approved by Congress to date will apply to new elections? What will the role of Congress be in the meantime? Will it seek revenge by refusing to pass laws placed in front of it? Will it seek to subvert the holding of such a referendum? Who will emerge as best placed to replace Vizcarra, assuming he steps down on 28 July 2020?
For his part, Pedro Oleachea, newly elected as president of Congress with the support of the Fujimorista and Aprista benches, accused the president of inciting greater instability by his statement about bringing forward elections. “Once again” his statement reads “the president has placed the country in a situation of uncertainty and instability, generating a situation of greater political conflict”.
For her part, the left-wing candidate in the 2016 elections, Veronika Mendoza pointed to the dangers of letting the existing Congress have a say in the holding of a referendum. She urged the people to mobilise to assert their own political rights in defining the country’s future.
Finally, for Prime Minister Salvador del Solar, this represented a “dignified way out” of a difficult situation that fell short of an outright closure of Congress.
Most of the rest of Vizcarra’s speech was devoted to analysing various sectors of government, their achievements and blueprints for the next year. Interestingly, there was no specific mention of the Tía María dispute in which the president has played a significant role in recent days (see below). However, reflecting is time in Arequipa the previous week, he did mention the need to rewrite the country’s mining legislation, the need to protect the full rights of indigenous peoples and the importance of deepening decentralisation of government.