The Vacancy of a President without a Party

Peru has a new president. On Monday, November 9, Martin Vizcarra was vacated in office on the grounds of permanent moral incapacity. Manuel Merino, congressman for the department of Tumbes, who was presiding over Congress until that day, has assumed the Presidency of the Republic following the Constitution. An overwhelming vote surpassed the required two-thirds.

The new Congress that has taken this decision was elected in January of this year to complete the period of the dissolved congress. It is made up of nine political parties, none of them reaching 20 percent of the seats.

How do eight of the nine parties manage to agree to vacate a president with popular support? According to Ipsos, Martín Vizcarra achieved a 79% approval rating after the dissolution of Congress; 87% in the first weeks of the fight against the pandemic and 54% in October, after the first impeachment process was carried out.

Martín Vizcarra was a president without a political party or a party.

In the first place, Martín Vizcarra was a president without a political party or a party. Upon dissolving Congress, he did not attempt to ally himself with any of the 24 parties with current registrations to present candidates to Congress.

Secondly, there is an institutional problem in Peru. Governments without a majority until 2001 ended in coups d’état. Between 2001 and 2016, governments without a parliamentary majority prevented an opposition coalition from prematurely ending their mandate. This has not happened since 2016. In the last four years, Peru had the first divided government in its history, four presidential vacancies due to permanent moral incapacity, the early resignation of a president, a referendum that prohibited immediate parliamentary reelection, a request by the president to bring forward elections that was denied; the first dissolution of the unicameral congress, extraordinary parliamentary elections, the first motion of confidence denied to a new cabinet, a vice president who assumes the office of president and is vacated with five months to go before general elections.

Thirdly, the vacancy due to permanent moral incapacity is an institution that has been questioned to the extent that it constitutes an open term subject to an interpretation that depends on the congress. Within the framework of reforms to optimize democratic governance, the political reform commission proposed that it be eliminated, broadening, in a limited way, the cases for which the president can be accused during his term of office.

In the public debate there are two interpretations of the cause of vacancy. The first links it to a historical interpretation that links it to mental incapacity. The other, points to conduct that is at odds with the exercise of office. In any case, the vacancy of Fujimori (2000) and that of Pedro Pablo Kuczynski (2018) were based on the qualification of the conduct of the former presidents. The debate on the vacancy of President Vizcarra revolved around various issues related to his government. However, the motion that triggered the vacancy process linked him to the reception of bribes, when he was regional governor of Moquegua.

In his defense, he maintained that in the Peruvian constitutional model, when criminal accusations against high officials occur, no definitive decisions are made, “even less so to vacate a president of the Republic, altering the presidential term and modifying the regime that the Constitution grants to said position. In our country, according to the constitutional design, presidents remain in office for five years; therefore a vacancy is an exceptional measure, which should only be promoted in extreme circumstances, not every month and a half”. He added “it has been made public that 68 congressmen have processes under investigation in the Public Ministry. Would they also have to leave their positions because of this, without the fiscal investigation having been concluded”?

Vizcarra could not avoid this second vacancy process in less than two months. 

Thus, without a political party to support him, in a context of escalating conflicts between the executive and legislative branches, with a ruling pending before the Constitutional Court for the demand of competence for the improper use of the vacancy cause by permanent moral incapacity, Vizcarra could not avoid this second vacancy process in less than two months.  Popularity was not enough. On Monday night he announced that he was leaving the Government Palace and would not take legal action, abiding by the decision of Congress. He said goodbye “until another opportunity”.

The country is in a state of emergency because of the fight against COVID -19. During this state of emergency, the right to assembly and free movement are restricted. However, today there were demonstrations in different cities of the country. It is premature to foresee if these demonstrations are isolated events or if they may grow in the course of the days. General elections were called for April 11. What happened this week and the agenda to be developed by the executive and legislative branches will have a direct impact on the campaign.

Manuel Merino belongs to one of the oldest political parties in Peru, Acción Popular; the party of Fernando Belaunde Terry, who was twice president of Peru, and Valentín Paniagua, the most recent predecessor of a President of Congress who took office in a very different context, during the political crisis of 2000.  As I write these lines, Antero Flores Araoz Esparza is being announced as President of the Council of Ministers. A politician with much experience, he was president of the Popular Christian Party, presided over Congress during the government of Alejandro Toledo and later was Minister of Defense during the government of Alan Garcia. He has been a deputy member of the Democratic Constituent Congress. The democratic disposition of the new President of the Council of Ministers and his ample parliamentary experience will allow him to have the vote of confidence in the Congress, which must occur within 30 days after the swearing-in. Flores Araoz will facilitate an understanding with Congress, where Acción Popular has just under 20% of the seats in order to guarantee continuity until July 28, 2021, when the President who will celebrate the bicentennial of Peru’s independence takes office.

*Translation from Spanish by Emmanuel Guerisoli

Photo of Presidency Peru in / CC BY-NC-SA

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