Peru – House of Cards Continues to Fall

One year ago a New York Times op-ed piece likened the political chaos in Peru to an ‘Inca-style Game of Thrones’. But the dramatic events of the past months indicate that ‘House of Cards’ may provide a better cultural reference, as former presidents and presidential candidates continue to tumble. In a referendum on December 9th the country voted overwhelmingly in favour of reducing corruption, at a time when every Peruvian president elected since 1985 was either in prison or under investigation.

As reported previously in this blog, fallout from the Odebrecht bribery scandal contributed to the resignation in March 2018 of President Pedro Pablo Kuczynski, saw the preventative detention of former president Ollanta Humala (2011-16), and led another ex-president, Alejandro Toledo (2001-06), to flee to the US.

Following this upheaval, the expectation in many circles was that the appointment of Kuczynski’s Vice-President, Martin Vizcarra, would herald a return to the political status quo. In other words, to dominance by the two most powerful political forces in the country: the Fuerza Popular party led by Keiko Fujimori (fujimorismo); and the APRA party of two-time president Alan Garcia (aprismo).

According to political scientist Martin Tanaka, Vizcarra’s ‘accidental’ presidency appeared unlikely to alter this situation given his “weak and precarious” position. An engineer and former Governor of the low-profile Department of Moquegua, Vizcarra took power under the worst possible circumstances, with his party leader discredited, and facing a Congress controlled by those responsible for ousting him. Vizcarra’s first three months in office saw his approval ratings fall from 57 to 35 per cent, appearing to confirm a trend of declining legitimacy for Peruvian presidents[i].

Instead events have taken a hand, transforming Vizcarra from lame-duck president to the last president left standing. With exit polls indicating that three of the four questions posed by Sunday’s referendum will pass by a huge majority (Vizcarra had distanced himself from the fourth proposal), an unlikely turnaround has been consolidated.

First, back to those events. Following Kuczynski’s resignation, Peru appeared set for several years of de facto co-governance by ‘fujimorismo-aprismo’, with Fuerza Popular commanding a majority in Congress, while APRA exercised unofficial control over many of Peru’s democratic institutions.

Then came the explosive revelations contained in what have become known as the “CNM audio tapes”[ii]. These recordings featured a group of corrupt judges and prosecutors known as the ‘white collars’ discussing the outcomes of trials, and appeared to implicate Keiko Fujimori[iii]. The scandal saw an eruption of public indignation, leading to large protests across the country during July.

The scandal seemed to energise Vizcarra, who presented proposals for a referendum to reform both politics and the judiciary on July 28th. When Fuerza Popular attempted to obstruct the referendum in Congress, Vizcarra threatened to dissolve the legislature if the measure was not passed. Congress blinked first and voted the measure through, albeit with some changes.

Emboldened, Vizcarra has taken the fight to Fuerza Popular. The referendum proposed four reforms. The first related to the judiciary, abolishing the CNM and replacing it with a new, restructured National Judicial Board that will halve judicial terms and involve civil society oversight.

The other three questions involved political reforms and, according to social scientist Sinesio Lopez, are aimed at ridding Peruvian politics of its most “backward” elements, i.e. ‘fujimorismo-aprismo’.

The first measure seeks to regulate the financing of political parties; the second prohibits immediate re-election of all congressional deputies (a measure Tanaka views as a “mistake”); and finally, a proposal to reinstitute a bicameral legislature. Due to changes made by Fuerza Popular, Vizcarra disowned this proposal as he claimed it would allow parties a means to bypass the ban on immediate re-election. Exit polls indicate that the first three measures received around 85% support, with the final question rejected by a similar margin.

Vizcarra could not have timed his second-coming as the new broom in Peruvian politics any better. No sooner had his referendum law been passed than the bane of presidents in Latin America – the Odebrecht corruption scandal – returned to claim more victims.

As the Financial Times recently noted, Peru has been particularly impacted by the scandal. This is not surprising given the well-documented influence of corporations on Peruvian politics[iv]. Sociologist Francisco Durand’s recently published book[v] on Odebrecht’s operations in Peru traces the evolution of Peru as an “operational hub” for the Brazilian construction company to the ‘competitive authoritarian’ rule of Alberto Fujimori[vi].

But while the scandal has involved three presidents to date (Toledo, Humala and Kuczynski), until recently ‘fujimorismo-aprismo’ had remained unscathed. No longer.

First to fall was Keiko Fujimori, who is being investigated by prosecutor Jose Domingo Perez for allegedly receiving US$1.2 million in campaign contributions from Odebrecht. Former executives of the company are co-operating with Perez’s investigation. Already damaged by the CNM tapes, leaked online messages from within Fuerza Popular point to coordinated efforts to obstruct the investigation and intimidate Perez.

The revelations have led to Keiko Fujimori and others within Fuerza Popular being charged with running a criminal organisation, a charge that carries a minimum sentence of 10 years in prison. Furthermore, Fujimori has been placed in preventative detention for up to three 3 years, on the basis that she might interfere with the case.

Viewed alongside the decision by a Peruvian court in October to revoke the highly questionable pardon granted to Keiko’s father Alberto – the former president immediately checked into a clinic, claiming poor health – some have asked whether these events represent the end of ‘fujimorismo’.[vii]

Following on the heels of those dramatic events came the investigation of Alan Garcia on charges of receiving illegal donations from Odebrecht. After returning from Madrid to address the charges, Garcia was ordered by a court to remain in Peru indefinitely.

Having agreed to abide by the court order, on November 17th Garcia presented himself at the Uruguayan Embassy in Lima seeking to claim asylum. Protesters took up a vigil outside the Embassy, and after weeks of consideration, President of Uruguay Tabare Vasquez announced on December 3rd that Garcia’s petition had been refused.

Where does all this turmoil leave Peruvian politics? It may be too soon to say that the influence of ‘fujimorismo-aprismo’ has been eliminated – their clientelistic networks, and links to influential business and media sectors remain. But these groupings have rarely been weaker since Peru’s return to democracy.

The question remains as to who or what will fill this power vacuum? Lopez has publicly urged Vizcarra to deepen his reforms by way of a Constituent Assembly to re-write Peru’s Constitution. While the caretaker president enjoys extremely high public legitimacy – his approval ratings have risen to 65% – it is far from clear where he would find the political or social support for more fundamental reform. Nevertheless, the referendum results provide a powerful endorsement of his new direction, and may induce him to seek further reforms.

As this overview of former presidents and prominent presidential candidates reveals, what can be said with certainty is that Peruvian politics is entering entirely uncharted territory.

Peru’s Presidents: Where are they now?

Alan Garcia: President from 1985-90, and 2006-11. Under investigation for corruption relating to Odebrecht; under court order to remain in Peru.

Alberto Fujimori: President from 1990 to 2000. Imprisoned in 2009 on human rights and corruption charges. Pardoned under dubious circumstances in December 2017, a court ordered his return to prison in October 2018. Currently in a health clinic while appealing against this order.

Keiko Fujimori: Daughter of Alberto, twice-defeated presidential candidate and leader of the largest party in Congress. Placed in preventative detention for 3 years while under investigation for corruption and running a criminal organisation.

Alejandro Toledo: President from 2001-06. Under investigation for corruption relating to Odebrecht, currently in the US from where he is contesting extradition to Peru.

Ollanta Humala: President from 2011-2016. Under investigation for corruption relating to Odebrecht. Spent eight months in preventative detention in 2017-18.

Pedro Pablo Kuczynski: President from 2016-18. Resigned in March 2018 following vote-buying and corruption scandal. Under investigation for corruption relating to Odebrecht, under court order to remain in Peru.

[i]Melendez, Carlos, and Paolo Sosa Villagarcia, 2013. Peru 2012: Atrapados por la Historia? Revista de Ciencia Social Vol. 33(1).

[ii]“CNM” refers to the Consejo Nacional de la Magistratura, or National Judicial Council.

[iii]The recordings contained references to a meeting with a “Sra. K.”

[iv]See for example Crabtree and Durand’s recent book, “Peru: Elite Power and Political Capture” (2017).

[v]Durand, Francisco, 2018. “Odebrecht: La Empresa que Capturaba Gobiernos”. Fondo Editorial PUCP.

[vi]Levitsky, Steven, and Lucan Way, 2002. The Rise of Competitive Authoritarianism. Journal of Democracy, Vol. 13(2).

[vii]Fowks, Jacqueline, 2018. El fin del Fujimorismo? Nueva Sociedad Vol. 277.

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