Earlier this week, Francisco Sagasti was sworn as the new president of Peru. He is the 87th president in the country’s 200-year history, the fourth president in the current five-year presidential term, and the third president in a week.
The unusual chain of events that led to Sagasti’s presidency comprise one of Peru’s biggest political crises in recent history. On Monday, November 9th, Congress voted to remove President Martín Vizcarra for “moral incapacity” and appointed the president of Congress, Manuel Merino, to serve as interim president. This move incensed the Peruvian public; Vizcarra had enjoyed a public approval rating of nearly 60% even after Peru suffered one of the worst Covid-19 outbreaks in the world. Peruvians took to the streets, protesting Vizcarra’s removal and demanding the resignation of Merino, who was the driving force behind the impeachment proceedings. Police violence against protestors left two dead, more than forty missing, and at least ninety injured. Merino resigned five days into his tenure, and Congress named Sagasti – one of the minority of Congressmen who voted against Vizcarra’s impeachment – as interim president until the April 2021 elections.
This crisis represents the culmination of several growing tensions in Peruvian political life, including an increasingly antagonistic relationship between the executive and legislative branches, a widespread rejection of the political establishment and embrace of populism, and the enormous toll of COVID-19. But no issue is more central to this story than that of endemic corruption. Indeed, the intractable problem of corruption in Peru has been largely responsible for the current political crisis.
In the last three decades, all but one Peruvian president has been investigated for corruption (and, for what it’s worth, the one exception was an interim president who served for less than a year). In 2000, President Alberto Fujimori, who had first been elected president in 1990, fled the country after leaked tapes revealed extensive corruption in his regime. An interim president, Valentín Paniagua, served until Alejandro Toledo was elected president in 2001. Toledo, who served until 2006, was accused in 2017 of accepting a $20 million bribe from Odebrecht, the Brazilian construction firm at the center of the Lava Jato scandal. Toledo’s successor Alan Garcia, who served as president from 2006-2011, was also implicated in the Odebrecht scandal, and committed suicide in 2019 moments before police officers arrived at his home to arrest him on corruption charges. The next Peruvian president, Ollanta Humala, served from 2011-2016; he was arrested and put into pre-trial detention on money laundering charges in 2017. Pedro Pablo Kuczynski was elected president in 2016, but was forced to resign in 2018 in light of charges of vote-buying substantiated by video evidence. Vizcarra, who had been Kuczynski’s Vice President, was then sworn in as president.
Perhaps because of this sordid history, President Vizcarra made anticorruption reform his highest priority, and demonstrated he was willing to use all his political capital to move it forward. Although he faced a hostile Congress dominated by the opposition party, Vizcarra successfully strong-armed Congress into allowing a constitutional referendum to be held in December 2018. In the referendum, Peruvians voted overwhelmingly in favor of judicial reform, party financing reform, and Congressional term limits. Despite the overwhelming margins in favor of the reforms, an insufficient number of people had voted to make them binding, but President Vizcarra continued to push his reform agenda aggressively. In September 2019, he dissolved Congress through a controversial but technically constitutional procedure after Congress refusal to act on a judicial reform bill. Though this move was strongly supported by popular opinion, the dissolution of Congress nearly resulted in a coup, as Congress moved to suspend the president. But the armed forces stood by Vizcarra and he remained in office. The dissolution of Congress led to snap elections in January 2020, in which Fuerza Popular, the main opposition party, suffered a decisive defeat.
Unfortunately for Vizcarra, new opponents filled the void left by Fuerza Popular. Chief among these was Merino. In May, Merino began his first impeachment campaign against Vizcarra, arguing “moral incapacity” in light of leaked audio suggesting the president was involved in a cover-up related to misuse of funds. The motion to impeach, held last September, did not pass. But in October, new allegations surfaced that Vizcarra had accepted kickbacks while serving as governor of the Moquegua department between 2014 and 2016—charges that Vizcarra denied. Despite retaining popular support (with polls indicating that 78% of Peruvians wanted Vizcarra to stay in office), and despite that fact that an investigation was underway to determine the veracity of the allegations, Congress moved swiftly to impeach and remove the president.
Were the corruption allegations against Vizcarra credible? Quite possibly. Not even Vizcarra’s supporters have argued that these charges should be brushed aside. To be sure, the alleged bribe was a tiny fraction of what former presidents like Toledo pocketed, but still, nobody is arguing that Vizcarra should have presidential immunity from these charges. Nevertheless, many doubt that the impeachment of Vizcarra reflected a sincere concern by members of Congress with presidential impropriety. Quite the contrary: It seems much more plausible that the removal of Vizcarra was an act of self-preservation by a corrupt political establishment, seeking to bring down a popular president who was committed to genuine anticorruption reforms. After all, of Peru’s 130 legislators, 68 are under investigation, many for corruption. In light of this staggering statistic, it’s not hard to be cynical about Congress’s motives in removing Vizcarra.
So what are the prospects for anticorruption reform in Peru? It all comes down to one question: in a nation where the chasm between Congress and its constituents is so wide it seems impossible to bridge, which side does the president choose? By focusing on meaningful anticorruption reform, Vizcarra chose the side of the people, and he was rewarded with unusually high approval ratings. He wore this popularity like a suit of armor as he charged, sometimes brazenly, into battle after battle against Congress. It wasn’t enough to protect him. Sagasti has surely taken note of this. Yet the protests against Vizcarra’s removal are Peru’s biggest protests in decades. The Peruvian people are asserting themselves, and they’ve already succeeded in removing Merino. The balance of power may have shifted in favor of the citizens, and a president seeking to cement his legacy would be wise to take that seriously. So while Vizcarra’s impeachment was a sobering reminder of how hard the entrenched corrupt elite will fight any meaningful institutional reform, the public’s reaction to that impeachment demonstrates how much the public is willing to mobilize in support of a leader who champions genuine anticorruption and good governance reform. There is an opportunity here for Peru to capitalize on this momentum and emerge from this crisis with a renewed commitment to fighting corruption. Let’s hope Sagasti takes it.