It has been a good crisis, so far, for Martin Vizcarra. The Peruvian president is generally perceived to have acted rapidly and decisively since the first case of COVID-19 was reported on 6 March. The opinion polls support the view that the bulk of the population backs the steps he has taken. His popularity rating, boosted by his dealings with the erstwhile fujimorista majority in the legislature, seems to be holding up well.
While the newly-elected Congress attempts to get its house in order – the various parliamentary commissions have yet to be selected – the executive has taken the lead. A crisis such as COVID-19, with its huge implications for public health, clearly demanded leadership. Power in the last few weeks has been further concentrated in the figure of the president. While popular, this may bring dangers to Peru’s fragile democratic institutions (see PSG article on police powers).
Last week, Vizcarra announced the establishment of an ‘Emergency COVID-19 Command’ to coordinate state-led activities to detain the advance of the virus. Although led by a representative of the Ministry of Health, the ‘command’ group also includes representatives of the three armed services as well as of the police. This smacks of militarisation. The government has been criticised for arresting and detaining members of the public that appear to have flouted the lockdown rules.
Whether Vizcarra and his team can maintain their popularity will depend on how long the crisis lasts. There are no indications that the end of the tunnel is anywhere in prospect. If the virus takes hold seriously in Peru’s poverty-stricken communities – overcrowded and with extremely poor health facilities – it may prove difficult to contain. And with more than 70% of the workforce in the informal sector, many of which are street sellers, it will be a difficult task to enforce the lockdown indefinitely without creating huge economic distress and, ultimately, protest.
The concentration of power in the hands of the president also means that there is no-one else to blame if the present strategy fails to achieve the desired effects reasonably quickly. And, as next year’s presidential contest gets closer, there will be no shortage of presidential aspirants who will seek to boost their chances by blaming the present government for its possible failings.
Up to now, there is little reason to believe that Vizcarra will seek to profit from the crisis politically by repressing possible sources of opposition. He is not like Viktor Urban in Hungary or Narendra Modi in India who have shown their authoritarian, anti-democratic credentials well in advance of the present crisis. Nor, to cite an example nearer to Peru, does he seem intent on ostracising political rivals as is the case in Bolivia under President Jeanine Añez. Nor has he shown signs, at least as yet, of wanting to change the rules to allow himself to run for re-election next year.
The more likely scenario is that he will become the object of attack as the deficiencies of his government in responding to COVID-19 become more apparent. If the death toll continues inexorably upwards and the health system starts to crumble under the weight of numbers it seeks to serve, then the blame game will begin.