A new week, a new premier, a new cabinet (or at least partly new) and a new date for a second vote of confidence in just over a week: 11 August. It has been a fast-moving week since Pedro Cateriano received the thumbs down following his address to Congress on 3 August.
That Congress decided to deny a vote of confidence in Cateriano and his choice of cabinet was largely the result of the short-lived prime minister’s poor tactics and his failure to present a programme with wide appeal. Much of his speech to Congress on 3 August focused on measures to boost mining investment and placate the business community rather than on measures to alleviate the suffering caused by Covid-19.
But it was also the consequence of manoeuvering by specific lobby groups – notably those hostile to university reforms – which conditioned their support to the removal of Education Minister Martín Benavides. Benavides is a figure closely identified with the attempt to improve higher education standards through tighter regulation and the closure of lucrative private universities that fail their students. More than one party in Congress responds to such business interests.
Benavides has been called upon to answer questions in Congress later in the week (ie after Martos’s address and the vote of confidence). If censured, he may be forced to resign.
It is worth bearing in mind that, as Vizcarra enters his last year in office, he can no longer resort to the constitutional device of closing down Congress if it refuses a vote of confidence on two separate occasions. This therefore limits his powers and exposes him to further attacks by a legislature that is determined to wield power, or at least achieve some degree of parity with the executive.
The possibility of Congress using its own constitutional powers to force Vizcarra from office resurfaced over the last week, although this would seem unlikely, at least at present.
In the new cabinet, whose members were sworn in on 6 August, it is notable that Benavides has kept his job. Also, María Antonieta Alva kept hers as minister of economy and finance, another person in the congressional firing line. The other main changes appear designed to smooth relations in Congress.
The new prime minister who replaces Cateriano is retired general Walter Martos, previously the defence minister. Whether the changes he brings are sufficient to assure Martos of a smooth ride on 11 August remains to be seen. One significant change is the removal of Rafael Belaunde as minister of energy and mines and his replacement by Miguel Incháustegui, until earlier this year the vice-minister of mines. Incháustegui seems less in the pocket of the mining industry than Belaunde. Another is the dropping of Martín Ruggiero as labour minister, a personality widely criticised for lacking experience for the job.
Martos has said that the main focus of his speech to Congress will be on the Covid-19 pandemic. The last two weeks have seen a deterioration with the official number of dead now well over 20,000.