The Dissolution of Congress and the Future of Peru’s Democracy

Demonstrators outside of congress in Lima, Peru after President Martin Vizcarra dissolved the legislature. (AP Photo/Rodrigo Abd)

When President Martín Vizcarra of Peru announced the dissolution of parliament in a televised message on September 30, most Peruvians welcomed the decision with a sense of relief. The general feeling was that something had to give after three years of gridlock between the executive and legislature. Over a month later, some fundamental questions about the future of Peru’s institutions and its politics remain unanswered.

At the time parliament was dissolved, many wondered why President Vizcarra had taken so long to pull the trigger. Polls conducted days later showed that 85 percent approved of the dissolution, and the president’s approval ratings jumped from 48 to 79 percent, according to an Ipsos poll. Since then, a number of questions have crystallized. Is Peru in the midst of a break-up of the constitutional order? Even if not, does President Vizcarra constitute a further threat to Peruvian democracy? What can be expected of the executive-legislative relationship after a new congress is elected in January? More generally, is Peru experiencing the end of the political and economic cycle that started with the dissolution of congress by Alberto Fujimori in 1992?

To answer the first question it is crucial to understand the political context in which the dissolution of parliament took place. This involves going back to the beginning of Pedro Pablo Kuczynski’s presidency, who was elected in May 2016 by the narrowest of margins in a run-off against Keiko Fujimori, the daughter of Alberto Fujimori, a former authoritarian president. Despite losing the election, Fujimori announced that she would implement her government program by pushing legislation through parliament. Her party, Fuerza Popular, had won 73 seats in the 130-member unicameral congress.

From day one, Fuerza Popular used its absolute majority to make governing virtually impossible for the executive—blocking government bills, censoring cabinet ministers, and using the threat of no-confidence votes against the prime minister to weaken the executive. In Peru’s semi-presidential constitution, the prime minister needs to enjoy the confidence of the legislature. However, if two prime ministers lose a confidence vote during a presidential term, the president may choose, at their own discretion, to dissolve congress. The first prime minister to lose a vote of confidence was Fernando Zavala in September 2017.

Kuczynski’s presidency was turbulent, but not only due to conflict with congress. His government failed to understand the political context in which it operated and did little to re-activate a stumbling economy. In March 2018, while facing corruption charges, Kuczynski was forced to resign hours before being impeached. Vizcarra, vice-president at the time, took over the presidency, inheriting the same political constellation.

By July 2019, Peruvians had grown extremely tired of the vicious infighting and the different corruption charges raised, among other issues, against several members of congress. Vizcarra’s announcement that he was sending a bill to congress to hold early general elections in 2020 was met with approval from the vast majority of the population, according to several polls.

Predictably, members of parliament (MPs) did not like the idea of losing their seats a year earlier than expected, and on September 26, the Constitutional Affairs committee blocked the bill without much debate. On the morning of September 30, Prime Minister Salvador del Solar asked Congress for a vote of confidence on the system for choosing the members of the Constitutional Court—the equivalent to the Supreme Court in the United States. The election of new members to the Constitutional Court was on the legislative agenda that morning. When the majority of parliament chose to continue with the election of the new members without attending to the government’s request, President Vizcarra’s interpretation was that confidence had been denied, and he announced the dissolution of parliament.

A majority of MPs, much of the right-wing media, and several constitutional lawyers considered this to be unconstitutional, since Vizcarra had decided to dissolve parliament before the motion of confidence could be voted upon. It is now up to the Constitutional Court to decide whether the dissolution was legal, but its ruling is expected to come after a new congress is elected on January 26.

Regarding the question of whether Vizcarra should be considered a threat to Peruvian democracy, it is true that the way in which he dissolved congress is constitutionally debatable. However, there is little evidence that the president is following in the footsteps of other (former) Latin American dictators. First, as mentioned above, the bill sent by Vizcarra to congress last August called for early elections in which he would not have been allowed to re-stand. Since then, he has clarified, more than once, that he has no intention of staying in office beyond 2021. Authoritarian strongmen usually want to stay in power indefinitely instead of giving it up. Second, the steps taken so far by the government point to an orderly legislative election in January in which all parties will be able to compete on a level playing field.

As for the relationship between Vizcarra and the new congress, not even the most ardent supporters of Keiko Fujimori expect her party to achieve another majority. The new congress will likely be very fragmented and, at this point, it is not even clear whether President Vizcarra will endorse any of the parties competing for seats. Vizcarra is not a member of any of the 24 registered parties.

Until now, the president only had a handful of allies in congress. Being in a minority position would not be something new for him. In fact, all of his predecessors since 2001—Alejandro Toledo, Alan García, Ollanta Humala, and Pedro Pablo Kuczynski—were minority presidents. Since no party is expected to command a majority of its own in the new congress, Vizcarra will likely be able to build ad-hoc coalitions to pass legislation. The fact that, by mid 2020, most parties will be focusing their attention on the 2021 presidential election campaign—and will thus be positioning themselves against their 2021 rivals instead of squabbling with a lame-duck president—will also play in his favor.

Taking a more historical perspective, the dissolution of congress has left many Peruvians wondering whether they are witnessing the end of the political and economic cycle that, perhaps ironically, also started with the dissolution of parliament. On April 5, 1992, Alberto Fujimori decided to close the bicameral congress and ordered the re-structuring of the judiciary. The following morning, Lima woke up to the sound of tanks surrounding government buildings and the headquarters of the main political parties. Needless to say, these extreme measures were taken without a constitutional mandate, and paved the way for eight years of majority rule and authoritarianism.

While democracy had recovered by late 2000, Peru’s institutions have remained extremely weak. Four central features of the Fujimori years have survived the passage of time, three of which constitute a real threat to the establishment of a robust democracy: corruption, party weakness, and fujimorismo itself. Unfortunately, corruption is not likely to be eradicated anytime soon in a country where every living former president is or has been in jail or house arrest for corruption. Similarly, no efforts at party building have taken root yet. However, the days of fujimorismo as a dominant political force seem numbered. Keiko Fujimori is in pretrial detention facing corruption charges, and most Peruvians blame her for the political stalemate of the past three years. It is no small feat then that Vizcarra’s popularity rests mainly on the fact that he was able to defeat Fuerza Popular by dissolving parliament.

The final feature of Alberto Fujimori’s rule that has withstood the passage of time is the economic model. In the early 1990s, Fujimori liberalized the economy and reduced tariffs on imports, effectively combating hyperinflation and resuming economic growth by welcoming foreign investment. His successors followed in his footsteps, signing free trade agreements with the most important trading blocks: China, the US, and the European Union. Peru’s exports grew from 10 to 56 billion in constant US dollars between 1990 and 2018, according to World Bank data. More importantly, monetary poverty fell from 42.4 to 20.5 percent between 2007 and 2018, according to government data.

Despite being a success story, it is not clear whether Peru’s neoliberal economic model will survive much longer in its current form. The massive protests in Chile in the past weeks are a reminder that inequality remains strong in Latin America. Both in Chile and Peru, the narrative of the model’s proponents has centered on the promise of robust economic growth. But once growth slows down, the most disadvantaged in society find it increasingly difficult to improve their living conditions and the issues of inequality, precarious living standards, and financial insecurity become glaringly clear.

For now, the dissolution of parliament has contained public unrest. However, the 2021 presidential election will be a test of the resilience of Peru’s democracy and economic model. By then, Peruvians will likely have experienced three years of slow growth and a crisis of credibility in its ruling elites. It should not come as a surprise if, as a result of a generalized discontent, the election becomes a referendum on the liberal economic model. A new cycle in Peru’s troubled history may be about to begin.

Ignazio De Ferrari holds a PhD in political science from the London School of Economics (LSE) and is a researcher at Universidad del Pacífico in Lima, Peru.