LIMA, Peru—When Peru’s legislature voted President Martín Vizcarra from office this week, they may have done more than just oust a popular leader — they 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. 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 Vizcarra as the leader of a still nascent drive to hold the powerful accountable. Furious at his removal Monday, thousands have taken to the streets daily in protest, refusing to recognize 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.
As Vizcarra took the stand in his defense 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 $55,000 in 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?” Vizcarra asked.
The hypocrisy wasn’t lost on scores of Peruvians who have demonstrated in the days since to protest 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 in bribes in exchange for two construction contracts while serving as governor of a small province in southern Peru.
Vizcarra denied the accusations and he has not been charged, though he agreed to step down, saying he didn’t 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. 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 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.
Vizcarra had just eight months left in office and has said he wouldn’t run again.
‘Very remote’ odds for corruption reform
Some have questioned whether 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’s still unknown how 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 signaled they will recognize Merino’s government, with several issuing statements urging Peru to uphold plans for an April presidential election. The Organization of American States said Wednesday it is “deeply worried” about the upheaval in Peru.
“The entire new government is so evidently crippled by what he did that he is not going to be able to gather support,” Gurmendi Dunkelberg said, referring to Merino.
Peru’s politics weren’t always considered so corrupt.
Carlos Fernández, a political science professor at Antonio Ruiz de Montoya University in Lima, has analyzed decades of public opinion polls and found that it wasn’t until the late 1980s that Peruvians began widely distrusting their politicians.
The scourge started during the 1985-1990 administration of Alan García, who in 2019 killed himself as police arrived at his home to detain him in connection with the Odebrecht probe. During Fujimori’s turbulent 10-year rule, rife with rights abuses and a notorious scandal involving a spy chief caught bribing congressmen, confidence further declined.
In the decades since, Peruvians have watched as one politician after another was accused of taking bribes, obstructing justice and embezzling funds.
“For the last 35 years we’ve had corrupt governments,” Fernández said. “That has created a political culture of corruption that now people are rejecting.”
University student Violeta Mejia said many are simply fed up.
“Why am I protesting?” she said among a crowd of demonstrators Tuesday. “Because we are tired.”