Peruvian protestors are facing police violence while standing up for democracy
Peruvian protester

Peruvian protestors are facing police violence while standing up for democracy

Daniel Willis

By: Daniel Willis
Date: 15 November 2020

A wave of demonstrations has taken place across Peru after a shock Congress vote last Monday removed President Martín Vizcarra from office. Vizcarra, who was expected to survive the vote, was facing several minor corruption charges which are as yet unproven (but for which he would likely face questioning after elections, in which he is not standing, in 2021). However, both Vizcarra and protestors have highlighted that over half of the members of the Peruvian Congress are also currently under investigation for corruption and argue that the President’s removal from office is politically and personally motivated by their opposition to Vizcarra’s reforms.

Vizcarra’s departure is the second time since the last Presidential election in 2016 that a President of Peru has been removed by Congress. On Sunday evening, further uncertainty was created by the resignation of interim President Manuel Merino and the failure of Congress to agree a successor.

This political instability could have dire consequences in the midst of a public health emergency in Peru – a country with the world’s third highest Covid-19 death toll per capita (after San Marino and Belgium) with more than 1 in 1000 of the population dying of the virus. There has also been a worrying repression of legitimate protest and widespread police violence over the past week, even after Merino’s resignation. This has worrying implications for the elections due to take place next year.

From power grab to protest: what we know so far

Monday’s vote was the second time that Peru’s Congress has attempted to remove Vizcarra, and the third attempt against a sitting President since 2016. The reasons for this are partly political, in that a range of neoliberal, centre right and far right parties that oppose Vizcarra have for many years sought to govern Peru from the back seat (they are particularly opposed to his handling of reforms to Peru’s private education sector, from which many key political figures profit). But they are also personal, in the sense that Vizcarra has made anti-corruption reforms a key part of his agenda; an agenda which threatens the pockets and reputations of many of those who sit in Congress.

The result was that the President of Congress, Manuel Merino of Acción Popular, was sworn in as President of the nation. It has been alleged that Merino was personally involved in much of the negotiation and backroom manoeuvrings that led to Vizcarra’s downfall. It has also been revealed that, during the previous attempt to remove the President this September, Merino had contacted the armed forces to see if they would back him (the answer was no).

This is part of the reason why many in Peru view this transition as a parliamentary “soft” coup enacted by a “coalition of the corrupt”. Although the vote was perfectly legal, it comes after years of political stagnation. In 2017, the hard-Right Fuerza Popular party removed the former President Pedro Pablo Kuczynski from office and sought a pardon and release from jail for (Keiko’s father and former President) Alberto Fujimori. Vizcarra, on the other hand, has maintained strong approval ratings for his anti-corruption stance, despite having a relatively low political profile before taking office.

Because of this popularity, the impeachment has prompted an angry backlash. Protestors took to Lima’s Plaza San Martín to voice their anger at the impeachment, with demonstrations also taking place in Trujillo, Cusco and Arequipa. But the police have been quick to respond, closing down streets, aggressively responding to demonstrators with tear gas and making arbitrary arrests. Amnesty International have already called on Peru’s new government to ensure that human rights are not abused during the political crisis.

However, images of badly beaten protestors continued to circulate on social media, and on Sunday it was reported that two people had died during the previous night’s demonstrations. During the week, Carlos Rodríguez, a lawyer with Peru’s human rights co-ordinator CNDDHH, was arbitrarily arrested while trying to provide support to other detainees, and further concerns have since been raised that protestors are being detained but no information is being released to the public about their whereabouts. Against this type of unlawful and violent repression of legitimate protest, we must offer our solidarity.

Later on Sunday, Merino resigned the Presidency and Congress failed to appoint a usccessor to manage the transition to fresh elections in 2021. It now appears unclear who is running the country or why police repression of the protests has continued with such force. There has also yet to be any clear message or co-ordination from demonstrators on what should happen next – although social media posts suggest that many would reject any interim President who voted in favour of Vizcarra’s removal.

The “coalition of the corrupt”: who are they and what do they want?

Between 2016 and 2020, the key force on Peru’s neoliberal right was Fuerza Popular. Despite having lost the Presidency with their candidate Keiko Fujimori, Fuerza Popular held the majority of seats in Congress and were key players in not only frustrating many of Vizcarra’s reformist efforts, but also in the impeachment of former President Pedro Pablo Kuczynski. However, after Vizcarra dissolved Congress to hold new elections to break the impasse (for which he received strong public backing) Fuerza Popular lost the majority of their seats. Corruption charges brought against Keiko Fujimori, and public anger at the attempts to have her father pardoned, have weakened popular support for Fuerza Popular.

The key beneficiaries of this have been a handful of parties from Peru’s right and centre-right who performed well in the 2020 elections – including Acción Popular, Alianza Para El Progreso, FREPAP and Podemos Peru. These parties were crucial in the vote to remove Vizcarra, although the Left coalition Frente Amplio did support it as well, and will be looking to benefit in elections next year.

Another example of “lawfare”

Although the impeachment progress was technically legal, both international scholars and academics at Peruvian universities are calling it a coup. This is because it represents an extreme politicisation of the judicial and legal processes surround government. And it is not the first time this has happened. There was consternation in Peru in the 2016 elections when two leading candidates, César Acuña and Julio Guzmán, were removed from the race. Elsewhere, similar methods have been used to block participation in elections across Latin America, most notably against Leftist candidates, including Rafael Correa in Ecuador, Lula in Brazil and Evo Morales in Bolivia.

This practice is increasingly referred to as “lawfare”. The goal of this is, of course, to prevent particular candidates and parties from regaining office, but it is also designed to sow doubt and distrust in public perceptions of political figures, in turn depressing turnout and buffeting the chances of conservative candidates.

Where next?

So far, the protests have shown no sign of slowing down. Public anger about corruption and political inaction has been brewing for a long time in Peru, a situation exacerbated by the horrendous impact of Covid-19. It is incumbent on those of us not in the country to offer solidarity with the protests and promote calls to protect human rights.

How this will impact the upcoming 2021 elections, where both the Presidency and all 130 seats of Peru’s Congress will be again contested, is so far unclear. Polls (untrustworthy at the moment without a full list of candidates) suggest that there is no real frontrunner, although the inexperienced George Forsyth (former goalkeeper for Alianza Lima football club) has polled consistently well in recent months. But it is by no means beyond the ability of conservative forces to use further lawfare strategies and the lack of unity on the Left to gain a further advantage. Against that, we must be ready to speak out.

Photo: Protestors demonstrate against the impeachment in central Lima. Credit: Ennoti/Flickr.