Peruvian President cornered by the opposition in Congress

Patricio Navia

Buenos Aires Herald, June 30, 2017

 

Peruvian President Pedro Pablo Kuczynski (PPK) will celebrate his first year in power in late July. With an approval rating of 39 percent — not good by international standards but slightly better than his predecessors had at comparable times — PPK is having a difficult time dealing with the opposition in Congress. The 78-year old economist has little room to retake control of the political agenda. Negotiating with the opposition might be a risky alternative for him, but it is far better than a slow descent into irrelevance at a time when the economy needs to regain strength.

 

Having lost four ministers in the last six months, in the face of a hostile Congress, PPK’s biggest problems are all associated with the dismal legislative support he has. After he barely made it to the presidential election run-off, with 21 percent of the vote last year, PPK attracted the protest vote against Keiko Fujimori, the leader of Popular Force. She received 39.9 percent of the vote in the first round, but lost to PPK in the run-off by the slimmest margin (49.9 to 50.1 percent). Kuczynski became the new president on July 28, 2016, but Keiko ended up with 73 of the 130 seats in the unicameral legislature.

 

In the first few months, PPK and Keiko seemed to have a tacit cooperation agreement. Popular Force did not actively oppose PPK’s legislative initiatives. In that honeymoon period, the government passed fasttrack legislation intended to restore economic dynamism. But relations between the government and Popular Force had turned sour by the end of last year. Congress issued a vote of no confidence against the technically capable education minister, Jaime Saavedra and the former World Bank economist was forced to leave office after a successful tenure promoting education reform. The firing of Saavedra signalled that rougher times were ahead for PPK in his relations with Congress.

 

In the following months, three other ministers have been forced to resign. Vice-President Martín Vizcarra, who was appointed by PPK as Transportation minister, resigned before he could be impeached by Congress after an accusation of wrongdoing associated with the construction of the new Cusco Airport. Vizacarra, who retains his position as VP, now has no official duties. His departure was a severe blow to PPK, given Vizcarra’s technical capacities and his negotiating experience from his time as governor of the southern mineral and agricultural province of Moquegua.

 

Most recent blow

Most recently, the finance minister, Alfred Thorne — another capable economist — was forced to resign last week when a secretly taped private conversation with the national comptroller was released, implying that Thorne was offering to increase the office’s budget in exchange for a lenient ruling by the Comptroller’s Office in the investigation examining the construction of the airport in Cusco. Edgar Alarcón, the comptroller, who is believed to have leaked the tape, will also likely be removed from office by Congress.

 

Rather than bringing in a new finance minister, PPK chose to put Prime Minister Fernando Zavala in charge of the country’s finances as well. Some analysts predict that PPK will soon reshuffle his Cabinet, keeping Zavala in charge of the Finance Ministry and appointing a more experienced politician as prime minister, to build bridges with the opposition in Congress. But PPK might choose to keep Zavala where he is, holding two of the most important positions in the Cabinet, without caring about the perception that he is increasingly isolated and unable to build a broader coalition to govern.

 

The opposition can smell weakness and is putting pressure on PPK, pressing him to pardon former president-cum-dictator Alberto Fujimori, who is serving a long sentence behind bars for corruption and human rights violations committed under his administration (1990-2001). The 78-year-old former president is also Keiko’s father. Another son, Kenji, is a legislator and a vocal leader in Popular Force. Keiko and Kenji, and many other Popular Force legislators, have publicly asked PPK to grant Fujimori a release under humanitarian grounds, given his poor health. PPK has said that he will take his time making a decision, but as relations with Congress are strained, it might make sense for PPK to send out a powerful signal that he is ready to find common ground, to end the legislative blockade and move the country forward.

 

PPK’s market-friendly and conservative base oppose a release for Fujimori on humanitarian grounds. Though the former strongman leader first implemented market-friendly policies in the country, the Peruvian elite has turned its back on Fujimori. The elite fears a possible presidency by Keiko, given her strong populist rhetoric. Because many of Alberto Fujimori’s old cronies surround Keiko, some independent observers also fear that corruption would worsen under a future Keiko Fujimori administration.

 

PPK has few options. His government is paralysed and the opposition is slowly bleeding his Cabinet out of members. Engaging with the opposition does not guarantee success for the president, but inaction guarantees that he will quickly turn into a lame-duck president. Because even the violators of human rights have human rights, PPK should seriously consider granting a release on humanitarian grounds to the former dictator in poor health, if that is what it takes to get the country’s economy back on track.