Peru president’s ousting throws nation’s anti-corruption drive into doubt

Every former living Peruvian president is being probed or has been charged on corruption charges.

Peru Political Crisis
Peru Political Crisis

The decision of Peru’s legislature to vote popular president Martin Vizcarra from office this week likely put the country’s best chance at making a dent on endemic corruption on hold.

The chief of state had emerged as the country’s most vocal proponent in pushing through measures to end decades of dirty politics.

Mr Vizcarra dissolved Congress last year after lawmakers repeatedly stonewalled efforts to curb graft and reform the judiciary.

More recently, he tried to get rid of their right to parliamentary immunity.

He may not have succeeded in pushing through major change — and is now under scrutiny for his own possible misconduct — but many Peruvians saw Mr Vizcarra as the leader of a still nascent drive to hold the powerful accountable.

Furious at his removal on Monday, thousands have taken to the streets daily in protest, refusing to recognise the new government.

“From the political point of view, he was the face of the resistance,” said Alonso Gurmendi Dunkelberg, an analyst and assistant professor at Peru’s Universidad del Pacifico.

“I think we will not see much anti-corruption efforts in this Congress.”

In a region where graft is common, Peru has gone further than most Latin American countries in recent years in investigating high-ranking leaders.

Every former living president is being probed or has been charged on corruption charges.

All but one has been tied to the massive Odebrecht scandal, in which the Brazilian construction giant has admitted to doling out millions in bribes in exchange for public works contracts.

The other, strongman Alberto Fujimori, is serving a 25-year sentence for human rights abuses, corruption and sanctioning death squads during his 1990-2000 administration.

And those are the just the cases involving heads of state.

Peru Political Crisis
Peru’s new president Manuel Merino (Martin Mejia/AP)

As Mr Vizcarra took the stand in his defence on Monday, he pointed out that 68 lawmakers are currently facing their own investigations on accusations ranging from money laundering to homicide.

The country’s newly appointed president, Manuel Merino, has himself been questioned for possible nepotism in the awarding of state contracts given to his mother and two siblings while he was a legislator, though he denies wrongdoing.

“Will they also have to leave their jobs because of that?” Mr Vizcarra asked.

The hypocrisy was not lost on scores of Peruvians who have demonstrated in the days since to protest Mr Vizcarra’s removal under a vague measure dating back to the 19th century that allows the powerful Congress to remove a president for “permanent moral incapacity”.

Lawmakers accused him of taking over $630,000 (£476,635) in bribes in exchange for two construction contracts while serving as governor of a small province in southern Peru.

Mr Vizcarra denied the accusations and he has not been charged, though he agreed to step down, saying he did not want to further aggravate the country’s already precarious stability.

Peru has experienced one of the world’s worst virus outbreaks and has the highest per capita Covid-19 mortality rate of any country in the globe.

Some blame a weak system of political parties in which Peruvians elect lawmakers from a confusing list of little-known candidates, many of whom have no experience.

Peru Political Crisis
A supporter of ousted president Martin Vizcarra holds a banner with a message that reads in Spanish, “I love you Peru, how could I not?” (Rodrigo Abd/AP)

Analysts also believe Peru’s generous parliamentary immunity encourages bad apples to run.

A survey by Proetica, the Peruvian chapter of Transparency International, found that of 40 cases brought by the Supreme Court from 2006 to 2019 calling for lawmakers’ immunity to be lifted to pursue possible charges, only six were granted — indicating that those suspected of wrongdoing can often ward off prosecution.

“Many lawmakers enter office already with investigations,” said Samuel Rotta, the group’s director. “Many enter politics to access immunity.”

Though lawmakers accused Mr Vizcarra of corruption in voting him out, many political analysts say the move was little more than a parliamentary coup by a group of legislators who feared the president’s acts would put their own careers in jeopardy.

Mr Vizcarra had just eight months left in office and has said he would not run again.

Some have questioned whether Mr Vizcarra should have stood up to Congress instead of easily stepping down after they secured an overwhelming vote to remove him.

“The odds that corruption reforms are going to go forward is very remote,” said Cynthia McClintock, a political science professor at George Washington University.

Others worry about what sort of government the new president will be able to put together.

One of his first appointments, for prime minister, is a politician who resigned in 2009 after 34 people were killed in a lengthy indigenous protest.

It is still unknown how Mr Merino will handle gargantuan issues like the pandemic and many expect him to try to pass potentially destructive populist measures.

Very few countries in the region have signalled they will recognise Mr Merino’s government, with several issuing statements urging Peru to uphold plans for an April presidential election.

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