While November saw two Peruvian presidents removed in a week and the emergence of a grassroots movement to defend democracy, there are no clear answers yet as to who will benefit in the long term.

It is not the first time that Plaza San Martín, one of the major squares in Lima’s historic centre, has been surrounded by police and filled with protestors demonstrating against the country’s political elite, but this time something felt different.

The week beginning 9 November saw a series of major demonstrations pop up around Lima, and across Peru, in condemnation of the removal of President Martín Vizcarra from power by the Peruvian Congress. Despite Peru having the third highest per capita Covid-19 death toll in the world, Vizcarra had maintained a strong level of popularity due to his efforts to push through anti-corruption reforms.

Angry at this ‘parliamentary coup’, thousands of Peruvians took to the streets and were met with tear gas, kettling, arbitrary arrests and disproportionate violence from the police. At one particularly alarming point in the week, a human rights lawyer was arrested while representing detainees, and 43 protestors disappeared into the prison system without a trace. Fortunately, all have now been found and released, but it was later reported that two young people had been killed during further demonstrations.

These protests were powerful enough to make the rule of the new president, Manuel Merino, untenable, and he was forced to resign after only six days in office. With a new interim president, Francisco Sagasti – who has been deemed acceptable to most protestors because he and his party voted against Vizcarra’s removal – now in power and police reprimanded for their violence, the crisis would seem to have mostly passed. However, many of the young protestors and grassroots groups on the streets, angry at years of political stagnation, instability and the levels of police violence, have now realised their own power. With trade unions only now beginning to join the struggle, the cat may well be out of the bag, and there is talk of ‘another Chile’ as support for constitutional reform grows.

However, with presidential elections on the horizon in April 2021, no clear leader, coherent ideology or even demands – beyond the removal of Merino – is yet to emerge from those mobilised on roads and plazas across the country.

A new front in Latin American ‘lawfare’?

As many Peruvian scholars have been at pains to point out in recent weeks, Vizcarra’s removal has been incorrectly referred to as an impeachment across much of the Western media. The term impeachment implies a proven allegation of wrongful actions, which is not the case with Vizcarra’s removal. Although Peru’s anti-corruption team – which has previously brought charges against former presidents Alan García, Alejandro Toledo, Ollanta Humala and Pedro Pablo Kuczynski – has raised questions about Vizcarra’s dealings when governor of Moquegua, these have yet to be fully investigated.

What has actually happened is that Congress voted, on 9 November, to approve a presidential ‘vacancy’ on the grounds that Vizcarra had a ‘moral incapacity’ to govern. As Alonso Gurmendi Dunkelberg argues, this term was used as a ‘practical fix’ to dismiss former dictator Alberto Fujimori, who had fled to Japan, in 2000, but has now re-emerged as a ‘convenient political tool for the 2020 Congress’.

Vizcarra’s removal therefore does not represent due process but instead the politicisation of the judicial system to further political aims. As Vizcarra and many of the protestors have highlighted, 68 out of 130 members of the Peruvian Congress are themselves facing legal processes. This is reminiscent of other cases from across Latin America, including the 2012 impeachment of Paraguay’s Fernando Lugo and 2016 impeachment of Dilma Rousseff in Brazil, where legal processes have become political tools to remove presidents and further political aims. This practice of ‘lawfare’ has also been used as a means of excluding Leftist candidates, including Lula, Evo Morales and Rafael Correa, from standing in elections.

‘Coalition of the corrupt’?

There is growing consensus that the motivations for the ouster of Vizcarra are rooted more in personal politics, trying to ensure protection against prosecution, than they are in ideology. However, the swift actions of the short-lived Merino government did suggest a move towards further deregulation and a deepening of the neoliberal agenda.

Vizcarra was partially successful in pushing through a series of anti-corruption reforms since he assumed the presidency in 2018. This was after President Kuczynski resigned owing to multiple impeachment proceedings and allegations of corruption brought against him by the far-right Fujimorista party, Fuerza Popular (Popular Force). The Fujimoristas had already spent years blocking Kuczynski from taking any meaningful action in Congress and did the same to Vizcarra. Ultimately, this backfired as Vizcarra dissolved Congress and held fresh elections which removed Fuerza Popular’s majority in Congress and boosted his own popularity. Unfortunately for Vizcarra, the Fujimoristas were replaced by what Jo-Marie Burt has called a ‘coalition of corruption’ – a host of parties split across ideological lines but united in their need to frustrate anti-corruption reforms to protect their own personal wealth and freedom (from prison).

A second, connected theory is that Vizcarra’s removal was prompted by attempts to reverse 2014 reforms to Peru’s private education system. Several key figures in Congress, who are also likely to take a tilt at the presidency next year, have amassed personal wealth from Peru’s private universities which have been accused of being ‘rife with sub-standard education and profiteering’. As Viviana Baraybar argued in a recent webinar, many of the parties who voted against Vizcarra stood to benefit from the creation of new universities and wanted to halt the closure of those which didn’t meet quality standards.

Whilst this does suggest political machinations for personal gain, those who took power also briefly enacted a decidedly deregulatory agenda. Not only did Congress manage to take several swift actions to benefit private universities during the brief Merino presidency, they also passed a law to allow mining projects to go ahead without proper environmental impact assessments (going further than Vizcarra’s own support for mining).

Where are the left?

In a country which always seemed to be somewhat bypassed by the Pink Tide, these protests would appear to be an opportunity for the Peruvian left to engage with protest movements, offer progressive solutions and build support in the run-up to 2021 elections.

However, although the incoherent coalition that approved the vacancy is made up mainly from parties on the neoliberal centre-right and far-right – from the Fujimorista Fuerza Popular, to centre-right Alianza para el Progreso y Acción Popular (Alliance for Progress and Popular Action), to Christian fundamentalists FREPAP and Ethnocacerist UPP – six of the eight congresspeople of the leftist coalition Frente Amplio (Broad Front) also voted ‘Yes’. This had a not insignificant impact later, as it very nearly came to pass that Rocío Silva-Santisteban, Marxist poet, academic and human rights activist, became the first female president of Peru, but many outside Congress opposed her on the grounds that her party had backed the vacancy (although inside parliament, traditional anti-communism was a much bigger factor).

Outside of Congress, Verónika Mendoza of the Nuevo Perú (New Peru) party / Juntos por el Perú (Together for Peru) coalition has been highly critical of the vacancy proceedings. As the candidate for Frente Amplio, Mendoza came third in the first round of the 2016 presidential elections, narrowly missing the run-off by 2.31 per cent from eventual winner Kuczynski. However, Peru’s lack of a deeply established political party system, and the constant splitting and reforming of coalitions before and after elections (particularly on the left) make it difficult to predict how parties will attract or lose support. However, it is notable that Mendoza has been ahead of the game by previously advocating for a new constitution in 2016, a demand that is beginning to gain support among the grassroots movements out on the street.

Elections on the horizon

On the same day as the crucial presidential elections in Ecuador in April 2021, Peru will also go to the polls in the first round of a vote to elect the fifth president in a little under five years. Without a full list of candidates, or indeed parties, it is near impossible at this stage to predict the result. But there are some early indications of who could benefit from the present turmoil.

Firstly, just as the electorate punished Fuerza Popular for their scheming early this year, voters may turn against the coalitions on the right for their role in Vizcarra’s removal. Without established parties, or indeed a whole lot of popular support, on the left, this could lay the ground for political outsiders to benefit. The Partido Morado, a sort of En Marche style party of the interim president, Francisco Sagasti, could do well with their likely candidate Julio Guzmán who was polling well in 2016 before being expelled from the race.

Mendoza is, in a sense, also an outsider. Her party and coalition have no seats in Congress, she has strong connections to social movements in Cusco (her birthplace) and Ayacucho, and represents a young and diverse vision of what a new left-liberal Peru could be. However, in order to combat the usual anti-left smears, she will have to build strong links with the emerging grassroots protestors. Recent polls suggest Mendoza has increased her popularity slightly, but not by enough.

The other option is George Forsyth, a former footballer who has been mayor of Lima’s La Victoria district since 2018. Forsyth has polled surprisingly and consistently well as the leading candidate in presidential polls this year, and resigned from Somos Perú (We are Peru – another party that backed the vacancy) to initiate his presidential bid.

There are still, therefore, a huge number of ways in which this moment may be resolved or not. Perhaps the worst thing would be for the persistent machinations of the right and widespread corruption in Congress to lead to a general anti-political sentiment taking hold and a conservative outsider, such as Forsyth, taking power. This would almost certainly keep the status quo preserved and close off all avenues for genuine change in Peru. Only by connecting more closely with those movements on the streets across Peru, and the student, trade union and social movements at the heart of Peruvian civil society, can the left push back against this and position itself as the only route to radical change.