Peru lurched uncertainly into full-blown constitutional crisis at the end of last week with Congress finally voting on 11 September to initiate impeachment proceedings against President Martín Vizcarra. It has summoned Vizcarra to appear before Congress next Friday, 18 September, to defend himself against the charge of ‘moral incapacity’.

The margin of the congressional vote was substantial: 65 in favour, six against and 24 abstentions. An impeachment vote must pass by a two-thirds majority of the 130-member legislature. It is unclear from these numbers whether there would be sufficient support for impeachment.

If Vizcarra is impeached, he would be replaced by the president of Congress, Manuel Merino. But the government has asked the Constitutional Tribunal to adjudicate the legality of the Congress’s decision and to issue a cautionary measure (medida cautelar) to prevent him having to come before the plenary next week.

The current constitutional crisis, of course, takes place as the coronavirus continues to rage – the official death toll last week passed 30,000 and the numbers infected 700,000 – and the country faces probably the deepest economic crisis in its republican history.

The background to this sudden deterioration in the longstanding feud between president and Congress was the appearance of audio tapes in which Vizcarra is heard giving orders to subordinates as to how they should respond in the event of being questioned by the public prosecutor about the Richard Swing affair.

‘Swing’, alias media personality Ricardo Cisneros, was involved in the 2016 elections in support of the Kuczynski/Vizcarra ticket. He was also apparently the beneficiary of government largesse for work carried out since then for the Culture Ministry. Vizcarra is thus accused of lying in statements he made previously denying knowledge of the affair.

At the time of writing, it was still unclear how the tapes had found their way into the hands of Edgar Alarcón, the congressman who first blew the whistle on the president. In the search for evidence, the public prosecutor has now raided the homes of Swing and Vizcarra’s two subordinates mentioned in the recording.

The procedure for impeaching a president is laid out in Article 113 of the constitution. It gives Congress the right to remove (vacar) a president in a specified set of conditions, one of which is where he or she is held guilty of ‘moral incapacity’. Originally moral incapacity was taken to mean mental fitness for the job, but Congress seems to be adopting a rather more literal interpretation of the phrase.

Vizcarra has been exposed to the threat of impeachment from day one of his presidency which began in March 2018 with the resignation of Pedro Pablo Kuczynski (who resigned faced with impeachment himself). His weakness has been his lack of a political party to provide him with a parliamentary majority. Vizcarra’s unwillingness to divulge information as to his contacts with Swing has provided his enemies with the ammunition they have long sought to bring him down.

Congress would seem to have the last word as it is now less than a year before his term is due to end. It cannot therefore be dissolved, as it was a year ago, for refusing a vote of confidence twice in a single presidential term. Presidential elections are scheduled for next April. Nor can Vizcarra easily use his most important political asset: his popularity with voters in opposing what is widely seen as a Congress corrupted by the personal interests of its members.

But the TC could overrule the Congress. This would further heighten uncertainties as well as political tensions.

Concerned to push forward with political and judicial reforms designed to root out corruption, Vizcarra had encountered ever stiffer resistance in recent weeks, leading to the forced resignation of a recently appointed prime minister (Pedro Cateriano) and the threatened censure of three other ministers, Education Minister Martín Benavides, Interior Minister Jorge Montoya and Economy Minister María Antonieta Alva.

Vizcarra has denounced the impeachment move as a “plot against democracy” orchestrated by the Congress so that its president, Merino, replaces him as president of the republic, a sort of constitutional coup. Others have claimed that the misdemeanour revealed by the tapes does not justify such a drastic action as impeachment, and even that the whole affair was a montage designed by Alarcón and Merino to trap the president. Such arguments will rage over the coming days.

The La República newspaper in an editorial on 12 September alleges that Merino contacted military commanders the day before the vote (i.e. on 10 September) to ensure they would collaborate in the event of an impeachment. It calls this evidence of a coup in the making.

This latest crisis is but a further indication of the weakness of Peru’s political institutions. The collapse of representative parties mean that these have become just electoral vehicles for their leaders, lacking any real link with those that elect them. Opinion polls show just how deep is the distrust in democratic institutions, notably in Congress.

Even if Vizcarra survives impeachment, this latest crisis can only contribute to the low esteem in which the country’s political class is widely held.