Election preview: Peru (legislature)

Peru goes to the polls on Sunday to elect a new congress, after the last one was dissolved four months ago by president Martín Vizcarra in controversial circumstances.

The drama in Peru goes back to the last presidential election, in 2016. It was a three-way contest: Keiko Fujimori (right-wing populist) led in the first round with 39.9%, ahead of Pedro Kuczynski (liberal/centre-right) on 21.1% and Verónika Mendoza (leftist Broad Front) 18.7%. With Mendoza eliminated, Kuczynski beat Fujimori in the runoff by a wafer-thin margin, 50.1% to 49.9%.

But in the congressional election, held at the same time, Fujimori’s party, Popular Force, won an absolute majority with 73 of the 130 seats, as against 20 for the Broad Front and just 18 for Kuczynski’s Peruvians for Change.

Peru has a semi-presidential system, where the president is independently powerful but the ministry is responsible to the legislature. So it’s no surprise that Kuczynski and the Fujimorists had a difficult relationship. Congress voted no confidence in the government in September 2017; Mercedes Aráoz took over as prime minister, but conflict continued amid a corruption scandal (the Odebrecht affair) that enmeshed politicians on both sides.

In December 2017 Kuczynski granted a pardon to jailed former authoritarian ruler Alberto Fujimori (Keiko’s father), in an apparent attempt to curry favor with the opposition. But it failed to save his presidency, and in March 2018, facing a second impeachment trial, he resigned. Vizcarra, his vice-president, took over.

That didn’t seem to help much. Fujimori père was sent back to prison, and his daughter was also arrested on corruption charges. Another former president, Alan García, committed suicide when facing arrest, and Kuczynski was detained for pre-trial investigation. Relations between president and congress remained hostile.

But Vizcarra, presenting himself as an anti-corruption crusader, won the battle of public opinion. When congress frustrated him over judicial appointments he took his cue to dissolve it and call an early election. The opposition denounced the move as unconstitutional and appointed Aráoz as acting president. But lacking popular support, she declined the job, and the constitutional court confirmed Vizcarra’s move.

So now Peru’s voters will get a chance to sort out the whole mess. Voting is by D’Hondt proportional representation in each of 26 provinces. Opinion polls suggest that no party has a huge advantage, so the president is likely to get a legislature that he can work with to replace the Fujimorist majority.

But since his own term expires in the middle of next year, his window of opportunity to do something constructive will be fairly small.

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