For most of us immunity has to do with the much-desired status of freeing ourselves from fear of Covid-19; for the 130 members of the Peruvian Congress it has to do with ensuring that they free themselves from the possibility of being investigated, prosecuted or sent to jail.
The last week has seen the renewal of the fight between the Vizcarra administration and members of Congress over the vexed issue of ending parliamentary immunities. It was set off at the tail end of the previous week, on 4 July, when Congress failed to pass a reform of the constitution that would have eliminated parliamentary immunities by the necessary two-thirds majority required in two congressional periods.
Almost immediately, the very next day, President Martín Vizcarra retaliated with the proposal that the issue of ending parliamentary immunity should be put to yet another referendum, and urging the Congress to approve a measure that would have prevented candidates accused of wrongdoing being allowed to stand for Congress.
Omar Chehade, president of the commission in Congress dealing with constitutional matters, was equally rapid in his response. A bill was proposed and passed which would curtail the immunity enjoyed by the president, the ombudsman, and members of the Constitutional Tribunal, as well as members of Congress.
Leading jurists lambasted this move, alleging that the bill ignored established procedures and, if ratified, would endanger the division of powers contained in the Constitution. Members of the consultative committee which advises the Congress on constitutional matters tendered their resignations in protest.
In his letter of resignation Oscar Urviola, a former president of the Constitutional Tribunal, said that the decisions taken by the constitutional commission “alter the constitutional order and the normal operation of the democratic system”. César Landa, another former TC president, remarked that “this decision is a grave reversal in the strengthening of our representative democracy in the fight against political corruption”.
Changes to the constitutional order need to be approved by two-thirds of Congress in two successive legislatures. Alternatively, they can be put to a referendum.
The conflict between the Congress and the government on the issue of immunity goes back at least a year and was at the heart of the fight that eventually led to the closure of the previous Congress at the end of September.
Just over a year ago Rosa Bartra, the then president of the constitutional commission, rejected outright the government’s suggestions for reforming the system of parliamentary immunities, without even referring the matter to the plenary.
Responding, Vizcarra used his Independence Day speech on 28 July last year to announce his intention to bring forward general elections by a year to 2020, opposition to which led Vizcarra to use his constitutional powers to close Congress and order new elections.
Congressional opposition to reforms designed to weed corruption out of the political and judicial systems has been at the heart of the skirmishes that have characterised politics in recent years. Whereas the previous Congress was dominated by a majority of fujimoristas, the present one is more mixed in its membership. However, opposition to what is construed as undermining parliamentary privileges evinces similar reactions.
Elected in January, the new Congress has made strident efforts to affirm its position in the legislative process, supporting numerous initiatives that conflict with the government’s agenda.
The most recent example of Congress seeking to wrest the legislative initiative was a move that would have postponed next year’s elections from April to the end of May, ostensibly on the grounds of Covid-19. Vizcarra was swift this last week to issue a supreme decree officially convening the elections for the second Sunday of April (11 April).
Up to now, at least, Vizcarra has been able to count on public support in his conflicts with Congress. With that support diminishing, and with a number of members of Congress seeking to assert their public profile as possible candidates next year, tensions are likely to persist. The performance of Congress is likely to figure prominently in Vizcarra’s last Independence Day address of 28 July.