The President of Peru Stages a Coup

Peruvian President Martin Vizcarra announces the dissolution of the Congress in Lima, Sept, 30. Photo: juan pablo azabache/Agence France-Presse/Getty Images

Eyeing the ruin of Venezuela under 21st-century socialism, one can easily forget that Hugo Chávez came to power in 1999 on a pledge to root out corruption. Forty years earlier Fidel Castro’s Cuban revolution derived much of its popular support from widespread disgust with the corruption of the Batista regime.

This might seem like ancient history, but it helps explain why the unconstitutional dissolution of the Peruvian Congress by President Martín Vizcarra last week has the region’s democrats on edge.

Peru was a left-wing military dictatorship until 1980, and its young democratic institutions are frail. But it has made substantial economic progress in recent decades. Real growth in gross domestic product has averaged better than 4.7% annually since 1999, and the percentage of the population living in poverty has fallen to below 22% in 2018 from 59% in 2004. Infant mortality declined to 11 per 100,000 births in 2018 from 35 in 1998. Nontraditional exports have boomed in the past two decades, and the middle class has doubled as a percentage of the population.

These gains have come as Peru opened markets and enhanced competition and respect for private property and foreign investment. Because Mr. Vizcarra’s putsch puts Peru’s political institutions in jeopardy, it also threatens the economy.

Vizcarra supporters see it otherwise. In their view, the president’s shutdown of a coequal branch of government—which will allow him to rule by decree for the next four months—is justified because the democracy had become dysfunctional. In July he called for early general elections, which Congress rejected. Last month he proposed a reform of the process by which Congress chooses Constitutional Court justices.

When center-right businessman Pedro Pablo Kuczynski was elected president in 2016, Mr. Vizcarra was his running mate. Mr. Kuczynski resigned under allegations of corruption in 2018, and Vice President Vizcarra succeeded him. He has since accumulated most of his support from the left.

It is important to understand that, under the constitution, the elected government has the power to dissolve Congress only after two no-confidence votes. There was one vote of no confidence under Mr. Kuczynski in 2017.

Congress has passed most of Mr. Vizcarra’s proposals since he came to power. Last Monday the government asked for a vote of confidence and linked it to the reform of the naming of Constitutional Court justices. But before taking up debate on the president’s proposal, Congress appointed a new justice. It then gave the president a vote of confidence, suggesting, based on its voting record, that it would later approve his proposal. It never got the chance.

Angered by the naming of the new justice, Mr. Vizcarra dissolved Congress without the second vote of no confidence that is required. He also set new legislative elections for Jan. 26. The opposition-controlled unicameral legislature was having none of it. It called Mr. Vizcarra’s move a coup. It suspended him from the presidency and swore in his vice president, Mercedes Aráoz, as the country’s acting chief executive. On Tuesday, Ms. Aráoz resigned as both interim president and vice president.

That resignation was a nod to the military’s decision to throw its weight behind Mr. Vizcarra. Rumors quickly spread that a new government contribution to the military’s retirement fund, granted the following day, was linked to the decision. But Mr. Vizcarra seems to have popular support, and the military likely was reading public opinion and placing a bet that he will prevail.

The public is angry about corruption. In Congress the Popular Force party, founded by Keiko Fujimori, the daughter of former President Alberto Fujimori, has a plurality. The fujimoristas have earned a reputation for recklessly wielding their power. Keiko Fujimori is in preventive detention on allegations of money laundering.

Mr. Vizcarra’s supporters also complain that the new justice is the cousin of the Congress president, Pedro Olaechea. Yet Mr. Olaechea isn’t a member of the Fujimori party and wasn’t involved in the nomination process.

Mr. Vizcarra appears secure, but the matter may go to the constitutional tribunal. Even if he respects the law that allows Congress to name the new justice, it isn’t clear how the court will rule. What is clear is that the separation of powers so crucial to democracy is in danger.

Many of Mr. Vizcarra’s supporters on the left want to rewrite the Peruvian Constitution. Gregorio Santos, an admirer of Hugo Chávez, tweeted on the Friday before Mr. Vizcarra used the police to close Congress: “Let’s prepare a great popular meeting for the new Constitution.” He knows this is how Chávez consolidated power in Venezuela. Mr. Vizcarra’s new prime minister (who is part of his cabinet, not a legislative leader) also demonstrates sympathy for the extreme left.

A strongman who consolidates power is rarely good for the long-term prospects of a nation. Trampling the rule of law and undoing an election is no cure for corruption.

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