November 18, 2020
by Alexis Sierra, geographer and Professor at CY Cergy Paris University, treasurer at the Institut des Amériques
As many countries in the world, Peru has been experiencing a health ordeal since the month of March, exacerbated by an economic and social crisis and that is now fueled by a new dimension, this time political, caused by the parliament. It echoes other parliament power plays that have punctuated the country's recent history and the region's (Ecuador, Brazil). Each of these power plays enables us to analyze, in the heat of the action, the power ties and the arguments used to justify the actions of the political forces, arguments in which this time the managing of the pandemic is mentionned. This crisis also gives us an opportunity to understand the notion of nation, from the general mobilization against the virus to the one against the personal interests' of the congressional representatives, and to defend the rule of law.
On November 10, 2020, during a period of major health and economic crisis, Peru's parliament removed the President of the Republic, Martin Vizcarra. A first attempt in September failed. Though the congressional representatives publicly justified their vote with the suspicion of corruption, while the courts had only begun to examine the case, they had to use a legal artifice and enact, abusively, an article from the constitution that defined the vacancy of power for "moral or physical incapacity". The parliament's president, Manuel Merino, then replaced Martin Vizcarra at the head of the country. Huge protests by the population then broke out all over the country, condemning it as a coup. The police crackdown only fanned it, and the death of two protestors on the night of November 14 to 15 provoked an outrage that was widely broadcasted by the media, the subsequent resignation of most of the ministers and that of the interim president. On November 16, under pressure, the parliament voted in Francisco Sagasti as the new president, the 4th in less than 5 years. He was part of the only congressional group that did not vote for Vizacarra's destitution.
COVID MANAGEMENT AND POWER PLAY BETWEEN EXECUTIVE AND LEGISLATIVE
In this dramatic sequence, the political ordeal and the health ordeal were closely intertwined to define the crisis situation. Peru, during the parliament's power play, is 2nd worldwide for number of covid related deaths per inhabitant. While neighboring countries officially count between 700 to 800 deaths per million inhabitants, Peru has over 1100.
And yet, the measures taken to fight the epidemic were done early and were strict. The health ordeal was even a chance for Martin Vizcarra to solidify his legitimacy as president, just like the political and moral ordeal that came from the Odebrecht corruption case. Having arrived to the presidency of the Republic as a vice-president, following Pedro Pablo Kuczynski's resignation under the pressure of the Fujimori opposition, the majority in Congress, he was not well known and had no legislative majority. He had then acquired presidential status by positionning himself head-on against corruption, one of the great plagues of Peruvian society, and by making it a part of a dialogue directly with the population, via the media, and by ensuring the support of regional elected representatives. He had built his legitimacy, in opposition to the parliament, by winning by a wide margin a referendum that modified the way judges were nominated, the financing of political parties, and by preventing the immediate reelection of any elected official. When sars-cov-2 reached Peru, the global health crisis gave him the opportunity to assert himself as president. On March 15, before the other Latin-American countries, and taking the opposite stand than that of the Brazilian president, he positions himself strongly with regard to the pandemic, presented as an outside threat against which the whole nation had to mobilize. He proclaims drastic measures: educational institutions are closed, suspension of all international flights then curfew and strict lockdown monitored by the police and the army. Circumventing here too the parliament, he announces it on television, solemnly, mobilizing national and republican symbols, surrounded by most of his government as well as regional and municipal representatives, thus displaying different sources of legitimacy. All of it seems like a demonstration of power and transparency, facing a threat that has not yet spread. His popularity, though having slightly eroded with the magnitude of the consequences of the pandemic, stayed high until the end of the summer when revelations of potential bribes came up, dating back to a time when he was governor of the Moquegua province, in the south of the country.
These revelations, in contrast with what was at the heart of Martin Vizcarra's action, are then a way for the parliament to make a dent to his image. The assembly also used the health ordeal as an argument in the power struggle. Congressional representatives, hostile to the president, therefore condemned the "worst pandemic management in the world", an argument widely used by the interim president and his first minister, to better legitimize their power play, made all the more easier because Martin Vizcarra had personally and strongly invested himself in its management. On the opposide end, he and his ministers, as well as the congressional representatives opposed to the destitution, argued before, during and after the destitution procedure, that the health crisis should in fact stop this destitution because it put the country in danger. After the parliamentary power play, the protesters and several media and commentators who had joined them also condemned the congressional representatives' irresponsibility, their decision creating instability and weakening a country grappling with a health crisis. On the night of Martin Vizacarra's destitution, the issue of continuity of the health and economic policies, during a major crisis in both areas, was forcefully brought up. When Manuel Merino also resigned, the health issue was constantly picked up again by the media to pressure the parliament, so they could quickly find a solution, and so, as soon as he was elected, Francisco Sagasti continued as a way to justify his priorities, along with his defense of democracy and economic recovery. During this whole period, the health crisis then served to define general interest.
A NEW STEP IN BUILDING THE COUNTRY
While the health crisis was a step in building the legitimacy of an unknown president with no parliamentory majority, it represents, in return, a way to question the legitimacy of the congressional representatives. The popular protest following the parliament's power play is less in support of Martin Vizcarra than in defending the rule of law as an element of stability, at a difficult time for the nation. It fueled even more a profound distrust in congressional representatives, several of whom had a personnal interest in overthrowing the government. Sixty of them were being investigated, for which some were facing a removal of parliamentary immunity to which Martin Vizcarra was favorable. In September, during the previous attempt at destitution, and while there were serious allegations of corruption against the president, the opinion polls showed that 80% of those questionned were against it, given the health and economic situation and the general elections in a couple months. The interpretation that the congressional representatives had of their power of destitution does lead to the risk of major instability. Peru has now had four presidents in five years, and the contemporary history of the Ecuadorian neighbor shows how slippery the slope is. In 1997, the Ecuadorian parliament indeed used a similar judicial trick (in this case, mental health) to destitute the president of the Republic, Abdalà Bucarram, and place at the head of the country the parliament's president. There followed ten years of political instability in which the legitimacy of the president was systematically being challenged. In Peru, the fear of this kind of instability, the memory of the 1990s, the disgust toward a corruption that led to the indictment of all the presidents of the Republic elected in the past twenty years, is currently creating a jolt within the community of citizens.
The management of the pandemic allowed Martin Vizcarra to create a national mobilization to confront a globally felt plague, that has been hitting the country for months. The actions of the parliament, during this health crisis, broke this attempt at sacred unity and, just like the divisions when faced with an ennemi during a war, this rupture represented in the eyes of a crushing majority of the population weakness, if not treason. The protesters, mainly young people, immediately positionned themselves as defenders of the homeland and the nation, sharing a common destiny, with common values and heritage. Portrayed by the media as "the bicentennial generation" in reference to the anniversary of the war of independence, they took to the streets, systematically holding up the Peruvian flag and occupying emblematic places (Place San Martin and the Lima Congress square). With their slogans, they call for a national unity movement to deal with the trials the country is going through, as opposed to the congressional representatives' specific interests. The death of two of them during the police crackdown acted as a catalyst for outrage, and these two young people, 22 and 24 years old, became the emblematic victims of a whole system that is despised and seen as having no concern for the interests of the population. This huge mobilization, reaching all regions of the country, initiated on social media, widely transpartisan, therefore expresses a national moment.
Alexis Sierra is a geographer, Professor at CY Cergy Paris University and treasurer at the Institut des Amériques. A specialist in risk and crisis management in Latin-American cities and their impact on urban fringes, he has analyzed the geopolitical issues of "natural" risks in Ecuador and Perou. He has worked on a number of research projects around urban issues at IRD and with the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique (CNRS).