When Martín Vizcarra first assumed the Peruvian presidency in 2018, he appeared to be the unlikely hero to restore the nation’s faith in democracy. Vizcarra inherited the office of President Kuczynski after he (and much of his cabinet) was toppled for his implication in the international Odebrecht corruption scandal. This was not the country’s first experience with dishonest leaders, and Odebrecht has even newly tarnished past presidents. Vizcarra is now the only president in 30 years who has not been under criminal investigation for his time in office. It is not surprising that Peruvians have lost confidence in their politicians, and support for democracy itself dropped to nearly 40% in 2019. Disciplined governance is needed now more than ever to secure a democratic future.
President Vizcarra has made progress toward tackling this problem, but his heavy-handed approach threatens the norms that are necessary to sustain democracy long-term. His reformist platform and promises to root out the corruption engulfing Peru resonated with the jaded public, but his opposition has been less forgiving (Vergara 2018). Faced with a hostile legislature, the defining moment of Vizcarra’s administration came when he took the dramatic step to dissolve Congress and call for new elections. The move was a tactical success: it both removed the biggest obstacle to his agenda and launched his approval rating to 82%. However, this was a serious failure to exercise forbearance (Levitsky and Ziblatt 2018). Although he acted within his legal authority, Vizcarra created a precedent that normalizes executive supremacy and threatens Peru’s system of checks and balances.
This is the latest escalation in the breakdown of Peru’s political arena, and it may not be the last. In 2016, Keiko Fujimori narrowly lost the presidential race to Kuczynski, but she did win control of Congress with Fuerza Popular. She denied the legitimacy of her opponent entirely and claimed that the election had been stolen from her (Vergara 2018). Having abandoned any pretense of political tolerance, she exploited the power of her position to paralyze her rival with frivolous impeachment attempts. Fujimori’s obstructionism continued into Vizcarra’s administration and ultimately triggered his forceful response. Forbearance can be difficult to practice once mutual toleration is eroded, but restraint is still necessary to prevent continued escalation (Levitsky and Ziblatt 2018). By dissolving Congress, Vizcarra may have missed an opportunity to break this dynamic. Fujimorismo lost ground in the early election, but the movement’s return to power could bring new retaliation. If not, new politicians can just as easily pick up and continue the same confrontational cycle.
Even if new forms of escalation do not arise, Vizcarra has undermined Congress’s ability to check presidential power. He has provided a tempting example for future presidents to follow when they are blocked by the legislature. If Vizcarra’s administration is successful, then executive dominance will be further legitimized as acceptable, and voters who have seen it used for their benefit will more readily trust untested leaders with the same sweeping power. Nearly 60% of Peruvians already supported the hypothetical dissolution of Congress on principle alone, but Vizcarra showed that support can actually reach as high as 85%. New actors who come into the office can be confident that this is a viable tactic, and there is no reason to believe that they will refrain from pushing their power further still.
Informal institutions and precedents are particularly important considering the nature of political parties in Peru. Here, parties are notoriously vapid, and their networks are available to any leader willing to use them (Vergara 2018). They lack both the strength and the will to provide gatekeeping against dangerous candidates (Levitsky and Ziblatt 2018). Naturally, these parties also lack the philosophical attachment to democracy to unite against the self-serving politicians who often control them. Even if the snap election brought more representative parties into Congress this time, Peru has neither a reliable system nor the political culture to prevent the rise of domineering politicians. If (or when) such leaders return to the presidency, Vizcarra has provided a tool that can be used to essentially nullify their opponents in Congress.
Worse yet, he has normalized the first step of executive aggrandizement at a time when procedural seizures of power are increasingly popular (Bermeo 2016). Fuerza Popular’s deliberate obstruction was excessive, but it was not far removed from the political gridlock that is normal in democracies. Peruvians must make peace with the system’s inefficiencies if they are to protect it from executive takeover. Instead of fostering a political culture that exercises patience, Vizcarra needlessly lowered the bar for when sweeping executive action is considered acceptable. This has also opened the door to more subdued forms of democratic erosion. If a future leader dissolves Congress, he might not restore it within the spirit of the law. It is not inconceivable that a skilled president could take advantage of a compromised government to tilt a new election in his favor (Levitsky and Way 2010).
So what has Vizcarra really achieved? He established a mandate, but it will only serve him until his term ends in 2021. At that time, both the presidency and Congress will again be up for election, as originally scheduled. Fuerza Popular was already faring exceptionally poorly with voters, and the party would have likely lost its control of Congress anyway. For the chance to force out his opponents one year early, Vizcarra subjugated the legitimacy of Congress to the will of the executive. His model assumes a tremendous amount of trust in an honest president to be successful. Even if Vizcarra meets this criteria, he has primed the public to accept an empowered and proactive role for the president. This lesson will not be lost on his successors.
Image Credit: Official photo distributed by the State of Peru.
Bermeo, Nancy. “On Democratic Backsliding.” Journal of Democracy 27, no. 1 (January 27, 2016): 5–19. https://doi.org/10.1353/jod.2016.0012.
Levitsky, Steven and Lucan A. Way. “Why Democracy Needs a Level Playing Field.” Journal of Democracy 21, no. 1 (January 2010): 57–68. https://doi.org/10.1353/jod.0.0148.
Levitsky, Steven and Daniel Ziblatt. How Democracies Die. New York: Crown, 2018.
Vergara, Alberto. “Latin America’s Shifting Politics: Virtue, Fortune, and Failure in Peru.” Journal of Democracy 29, no. 4 (October 17, 2018): 65–76. https://doi.org/10.1353/jod.2018.0063.