A series of demonstrations have broken out in several Peruvian cities after President Martín Vizcarra was ousted from office on the 9th of November, tipping the country into further political uncertainty as it deals with one of the world’s highest Covid-19 death tolls. Manuel Merino, the former head of Congress, was sworn in as President after Vizcarra, the popular centre-right leader, was forced out of power, following unproven allegations that he had received bribes while acting as a regional governor in 2014.
In the days that have followed, thousands have taken to the streets and squares of Lima and other major cities – including Huancayo, Iquitos, Cuzco, and Apurímac – to protest his removal and to rally against what they see as a coup. Rallies on the 12th of November were among the largest in two decades in Peru and, while protestors have remained peaceful, police have used needlessly repressive tactics that have left over a dozen wounded.
Vizcarra has denied the allegations of corruption, labelling them “baseless” and “false.” Meanwhile, Jo-Marie Burt, from the Washington Office on Latin America, has affirmed that, even if true, the charges do not “rise to the bar of grave crimes that merit impeachment.” In fact, during his time in office Vizcarra had actually pushed forward numerous anti-corruption initiatives – and this is where we enter murky waters.
Over half of the members in Congress were actually under investigation themselves, as a result of these initiatives: the same lawmakers which were responsible for the ousting of Vizcarra. Moreover, despite voting 105-19 in favour of his removal, they cited an obscure constitutional provision in order to do so. Indeed, José Miguel Vivanco, the Americas director at Human Rights Watch, confirmed that “the legality of [Vizcarra’s] ousting is highly dubious and seems driven by legislators’ own interests in evading accountability.” He warned that unchecked, they may continue to “undermine the rule of law.”
The process itself certainly appears to have been unfair and potentially illegitimate. According to Human Rights Watch, the debate in Congress lasted six hours, during which Vizcarra was given a mere one hour to speak, and they stress that the process poses “a serious threat to the rule of law in the country.” It is now up to the international community to recognize the unjust nature of the dismissal. However, with the world largely distracted by a global pandemic and the American Presidential election, the Peruvian people must now convince their neighbours that this was, indeed, a coup.
Gino Costa, a lawmaker from the progressive Morado party who joined the protests in Lima, told Reuters: “we’re in the streets spontaneously and peacefully defending Peruvian democracy from an abuse by congress.” Vivanco, from Human Rights Watch, supported the Peruvians right to protest and asserted that “the police and other authorities need to protect peaceful protests, and in all situations refrain from using excessive force.” Sadly, the police have not listened. According to various journalists and human rights groups, peaceful protestors were subject to excessive force, including the use of tear gas and rubber bullets, and others were arbitrarily arrested. During Thursday’s demonstrations in Lima, 11 protestors were left wounded.
Many Peruvians see this as a power grab by Merino, a far-right politician promoting law and order; as Alonso Gurmendi Dunkelberg, a professor of international law in Lima, points out, his most important motivation will not be to address the nation’s rampant inequality, but “to get people to like what his government approves, no matter how damaging it may be in the long term.”
The Financial Times also warns of the threat of populism, citing how anti-corruption has often been a “tool wielded most effectively by populists.” Worsening socioeconomic conditions in Peru certainly do provide populists with an opportunity. As Jair Bolsonaro proved across the border, the rhetoric of more security and less inequality can lead to power, regardless of actual policies.
Whether or not the threat of right-wing populism is real, what is clear is that the actions of the Peruvian congress – as well as the subsequent repression of popular protests – have potentially undermined stability and democracy in Peru. This could hardly come at a worse time, given the human loss and economic recession that have blighted the nation since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic, and it looks like it will be a difficult few months ahead for the nation.
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