Jonathan Maunders unpacks why Peruvians have taken to the streets in opposition to the removal of Vizcarra and a neoliberal constitution that enables corruption
Peru’s interim president, Manuel Merino, was forced to resign on Sunday following his government’s brutal response to recent mass protests across the country, in which two protesters died and at least forty are missing.
The protests erupted after Peru’s right-wing majority Congress launched a coup, impeaching former president Martin Vizcarra and replacing him with Merino who in turn filled his cabinet with corrupt figures from the political right.
The impeachment comes in response to Vizcarra’s attempts to fight political corruption and his actions to prioritise public health ahead of the economy during the current pandemic. Vizcarra is a committed neoliberal and is certainly no figure of the left, but his impeachment was instigated by forces further to the right, much closer to the politics of Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro.
Vizcarra vs Congress
Vizcarra ascended to the presidency following the huge corruption scandal that forced the resignation of his predecessor, Pedro Pablo Kuczynski, and vowed to end such practices. In 2018, Vizcarra announced a referendum proposing to limit private funding for political campaigns and stopping lawmakers from automatically being reelected. Peruvians overwhelmingly backed his proposals, angering the parliamentary right, who set about provoking a constitutional crisis.
In the following months, the Fujimorista-dominated Congress refused to cooperate with any actions against corruption, stacked the constitutional court with sympathetic figures and blocked Vizcarra’s repeated calls for a general election to end the deadlock. In response, he dissolved Congress, asserting that their actions amounted to a second vote of no confidence in his government (as set out in the Peruvian constitution).
Congress vowed to ignore the decision and attempted to name an interim president. However, they were eventually defeated as the Constitutional Court of Peru and the military both narrowly sided with Vizcarra, no doubt influenced by mass protests against the actions of Congress.
Vizcarra was then able to call legislative elections, with the intention of ending the impasse. However, with the president not being affiliated to a party and a weak parliamentary left hampered by corruption and past tactical blunders, a positive outcome was always unlikely. While the Fujimoristas were shunned and lost their majority, they were largely replaced by representatives of other right-wing parties, united by fear of Vizcarra’s anti-corruption agenda.
Peru has been one of the worst affected countries during the current pandemic, currently having the world’s third highest death figures as a percentage of population. Vizcarra responded quickly to the outbreak, enforcing a strict lockdown to suppress the virus.
However, this approach was ineffective as the majority of Peruvians are in informal employment, forcing many to ignore the rules in order to feed their families. The lockdown measures also resulted in a large fall in GDP, the greatest decline seen globally, emboldening the right to strike against Vizcarra.
Congress members first tried to oust Vizcarra in September, in response to the struggling economy and Vizcarra’s intention to limit parliamentary immunity. They presented audio recordings of the president allegedly instructing his staff to distance him from corruption allegations, with Vizcarra denying the claims and arguing that the recordings had been edited. Congress voted for impeachment proceedings to begin but a further vote to remove Vizcarra from office collapsed when it was revealed that Manuel Merino, presiding over Congress, had already sought the backing of the Peruvian military and begun assembling a cabinet.
In November, Congress launched a second offensive, accusing Vizcarra of mishandling the economy and accepting bribes during his time as a local governor. Despite the bribery allegations being unproven, Congress quickly voted to remove the president, replacing him with Merino and a right-wing cabinet committed to reversing anti-corruption legislation and ignoring the health cost of removing pandemic restrictions.
The fight against neoliberalism
After Vizcarra’s removal, thousands of protesters gathered all over Peru to oppose the undemocratic actions of Congress. The protests, dominated by young Peruvians, are believed to the largest since the fall of Alberto Fujimori’s authoritarian regime in 2000.
On Saturday evening, in Lima, the protests were met with brutal police repression, shooting dead two young students and leaving many more injured or missing. Subsequently, images have shown the police using batons against peaceful protesters and teargas being used indiscriminately. The police violence has further inspired many to take to the streets and oppose the coup and the Peruvian state more widely.
Many of the protesters are not Vizcarra supporters but they recognise this is a coup by Congress members to protect their interests and halt change. The protests may have begun in response to Vizcarra’s impeachment but they have quickly become about opposing neoliberalism and the legacy of Fujimori. For many, recent events in Chile are a unique source of inspiration as they pursue similar aims.
In 1992, Fujimori imposed a neoliberal constitution that maintained the privatisation of healthcare and education, neglected public pensions and left Peru’s political system vulnerable to corruption and vested interests. It is clear how Vizcarra’s impeachment is the result of such a constitution and why it ignited building anger around inequality and corruption.
The resignation of Merino is a major victory for the movement, but it is vital they sustain their pressure to drive out all those behind the coup. They must now fight to extend Vizcarra’s anti-corruption agenda and push for a constitution that reverses the inequality of neoliberalism.
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