Peru’s cry for honest governance

The ouster of two presidents reflects a society yearning for equality under the law.

A woman in Lima walks past the Constitutional Court which is deciding whether former President Martin Vizcarra had been legally removed from office by Congress.

In the past decade countries around the globe have been shaken by youth-led protests for democracy and economic justice. Now it is Peru’s turn, and what happens there has the potential to be pivotal for a region struggling to replace entrenched corruption with rule of law.

A week ago Peru’s Congress ousted President Martín Vizcarra over corruption allegations. The speaker of the one-chamber legislature, Manuel Merino, led the ouster and was then appointed interim president. He lasted five days. Protesters clashed with security forces in Lima, the capital, and by Sunday Mr. Merino had to step down.

Hundreds of Peruvian and international legal scholars have signed a statement calling the move against Mr. Vizcarra a “parliamentary coup.” Protesters carried signs reading, “You messed with the wrong generation.” Abigail Calluque, a student protester, told Al-Jazeera, “[Politicians] do whatever they want and we’ve always stayed quiet. No more.”

At the heart of Peru’s political crisis is the constitution itself. It gives Congress the power to dismiss a president and the president the power to dissolve Congress. Since the adoption of the constitution in 1993, those powers have been applied under questionable legal pretexts, sowing instability and, most of all, exacerbating corruption.

Peru ranks as the third most corrupt country in Latin America. Yet, according to a Transparency International poll last year, 78% of Peruvians believe ordinary citizens can make a difference in the fight against corruption. Mr. Vizcarra came to power in 2018 vowing to uproot corruption. After his reform agenda met stiff headwinds in Congress, he dissolved the legislature. Lawmakers responded by suspending the president on the grounds of “permanent moral incapacity” and swore in the vice president. Mr. Vizcarra refused to back down, and a day later his newly elevated vice president resigned. Mr. Vizcarra called for new congressional elections.

That ballot, last January, resulted in a significant defeat for Mr. Vizcarra’s party, leaving him exposed politically. In October he was accused of taking bribes during his tenure as a regional governor. He denied the allegations. An El Comercio-Ipsos poll last month found that 78% said Mr. Vizcarra should remain in office and the corruption allegations pursued only after his term ended. Few failed to note that more than half of the legislators who voted to oust Mr. Vizcarra are themselves under criminal investigation for corruption.

For Peruvians already battered by the health and economic consequences of the pandemic – the country has one of the highest COVID-19 death rates in the world – the political crisis may signal more hardship. In six months, however, voters will have an opportunity to take their grievances to the polls and elect a new president and Congress. In the meantime, Peru’s leaders may want to draw a lesson from neighboring Chile, which has had sustained protests over economic inequality. Last month the people won out. They approved a referendum to draft a new constitution.

Peruvians are tired of living under poor governance. Their desire for equality under rule of law has been awakened. It cannot be deferred too long.

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