(above) Billboards featuring candidates for Congress line a street in the San Juan de Miraflores neighborhood of Lima, Peru, Jan. 23, 2020 (AP photo by Martin Mejia).


Can Vizcarra Push His Reforms Through Peru’s Newly Fragmented Congress?

Simeon Tegel

LIMA, Peru—When Martin Vizcarra stepped up from the vice presidency to replace the disgraced Pedro Pablo Kuczynski as president of Peru in March 2018, the odds appeared stacked against him.

An austere, accidental leader whose tiny political party, Peruvians for Change, controlled a fast-disintegrating congressional bloc, Vizcarra immediately came under heavy fire from the hard-right Popular Force party, led by Keiko Fujimori, which had seized on a bribery scandal to force Kuczynski to resign. After three months of attempting to appease the Fujimoristas—and seeing his approval ratings plummet—Vizcarra launched a make-or-break campaign against Peru’s rampant corruption, and by implication Popular Force, which then used its legislative majority to block most of the new president’s initiatives.

Now, less than two years later, the tables could not have turned more dramatically. In special legislative elections on Jan. 26, Popular Force was decimated. Its share of seats in Peru’s unicameral 130-member Congress fell from 73 to a projected 15. Two days later, a court in Lima ordered Fujimori to serve 15 months of pretrial detention while she is investigated for laundering illegal campaign donations from Odebrecht, the Brazilian construction giant whose bribery network has tainted many Latin American governments. Fujimori had previously served one year in pretrial detention, based on different evidence, but had been released by Peru’s constitutional court in November.

The elections came after Vizcarra, exasperated by lawmakers’ resistance to his anti-corruption agenda, dissolved Congress last fall. That resistance included attempts to stack the judiciary with sympathetic judges to try and protect Fujimori. Congress had also blocked important reforms like scrapping parliamentary immunity, which frequently shielded legislators, especially from Popular Force, from prosecution for misdeeds ranging from taking kickbacks to groping an airline stewardess.

For Fujimori, the fall from grace could not have been harsher. As leader of the dominant party in Congress and a close runner-up in the 2011 and 2016 presidential elections, Fujimori had been the early front-runner ahead of the next presidential contest in 2021. She had inherited Popular Force from her father, former President Alberto Fujimori, who founded the party under a different name. He is now serving a 25-year jail term for corruption and human rights abuses during his presidency. His legacy continues to divide Peruvians, with some decrying his authoritarian tendencies while others credit him for halting hyperinflation during the 1990s and crushing the violent Maoist insurgency of the Shining Path.

His daughter pushed Popular Force even further to the right, embracing ultra-conservative Catholic and evangelical groups and cozying up to powerful business interests and illegal gold miners. That, combined with the corruption charges against her, pushed the limits of Peruvians’ patience and gave Vizcarra the political space he needed to ditch a legislature widely seen to be working against the national interest. After years of enjoying 30 to 40 percent approval ratings, easily the highest of any party in Peru’s fractured political landscape, Popular Force took just under 8 percent of the vote in the recent special election.

The humiliating result for Popular Force has vindicated Vizcarra, whose decision to dissolve Congress was supported by more than 80 percent of Peruvians in opinion polls. But the splintered nature of the new Congress means the president may still face challenges in passing his anti-corruption reforms. Nine separate parties will be represented in the new legislature, with each holding between nine and 25 seats at most. Although many of the parties are ideologically centrist, various structural factors make it hard to predict how they will vote.

Even amid a populist surge in the recent special election, there are reasons to be cautiously optimistic that Vizcarra will be able to build working majorities for his reforms.

The largest is Popular Action, a moderate party that was founded in the 1950s by the widely respected former President Fernando Belaunde Terry. Yet in the last Congress, its six members split between pro- and fiercely anti-Fujimori factions. That inconsistency is partly explained by Peru’s controversial preferential voting system, which allows voters not just to select a party list but also their two preferred candidates on that list. This effectively makes candidates from the same party compete with each other, incentivizing them to stand out, often with proposals that diverge from their own party’s platform.

To make matters even more unpredictable, many of the newly elected members of Congress are political newcomers with limited or no track record of public service. They will only serve until the end of the current congressional term in July 2021 and will not be able to run for immediate reelection. While many candidates broadly championed tackling corruption on the campaign trail, it remains to be seen whether legislative majorities will now emerge around specific reform proposals.

The two surprises in the recent ballot came from the far right. The Agricultural People’s Front of Peru, a fundamentalist party that combines evangelical Christianity with Incan mythology, is projected to receive 13 seats in Congress, while the fascist-leaning Union for Peru, or UPP, is projected to receive 15. The UPP’s leader, Antauro Humala, is a former military officer who is serving a lengthy jail sentence for leading a military uprising in 2005 in which several police officers were killed. The party’s proposals include freeing its leader and executing corrupt government officials.

Even amid this populist surge, there are reasons to be cautiously optimistic that Vizcarra will be able to build working majorities for his reforms.

The new Congress will be under enormous public pressure to support the president’s bid to tackle graft; Vizcarra’s approval rating of around 60 percent, unusually high in Peru, is widely attributed to him adopting anti-corruption as his flagship policy. Meanwhile, 61 percent of Peruvians regard graft as one of their society’s most important problems, the highest share behind only public safety at 66 percent, according to a 2019 survey by Transparency International.

If Vizcarra does build a constructive relationship with the new Congress, he could push through many reforms—on curbing or abolishing parliamentary immunity, ending preferential voting, banning political candidates with criminal convictions, making internal party elections compulsory, imposing stricter party finance rules, returning to a bicameral legislature in order to check the excesses of the current Congress, and establishing quotas for female candidates.

This special election could also have implications for next year’s presidential campaign. Vizcarra is barred by Peru’s Constitution from running for immediate reelection, and the field is wide open.

In the recent special election, Daniel Urresti, a brash leftist former general who previously served as interior minister, was the candidate with the most votes under the preferential voting system. Despite facing trial for allegedly murdering a journalist during the 1980s, he received roughly half the ballots cast for his party, We Can Peru or Podemos Peru, which will have nine members in the new Congress.

Urresti has not registered in presidential polls until now, but that is likely to change, as he will likely make the most of his prominent new platform in Congress. His first test may be how he fares against the new front-runner, Salvador del Solar, a popular actor and lawyer who served as Vizcarra’s prime minister until September and kept a low profile during the special elections.

Of course, Peruvian elections are notoriously unpredictable. Voters frequently make up their minds at the last minute, and dark horse candidates can surge out of nowhere in the final weeks of a campaign. In the meantime, if Vizcarra manages to build alliances in the new Congress, there is a real chance that politics in Peru could become cleaner, more transparent and more representative.

Simeon Tegel is a freelance journalist and analyst based in Lima, Peru. You can follow him on Twitter at @simeonTegel.