Peru has a history of morally dubious and corrupt politicians, in fact “the past five presidents, who together governed for 33 years, have each been investigated or jailed for corruption.” But this time it is Congress, not the president, that has come under fire. While most examples of democratic backsliding consist of a president or prime minister breaking democratic norms to increase their power over the government, Peru’s Congress– not a would-be autocrat– is attempting to erode democracy. President Martin Vizcarra was supposed to be the reformer that Peruvians wanted and needed, but the majority of his anti-corruption agenda barely made it off the ground due to the resistance he faced in Congress. Now, less than a year before Vizcarra’s term was set to end Congress has taken aggressive action, ignoring institutional forbearance and ousting the President on alleged corruption charges. Despite the charges in question, the impeachment is a blatant power play from a Congress threatened by President Vizcarra’s anti-corruption reform. Democratic erosion by Congress leaves the Peruvian presidency in a precarious position– how can the public expect anyone to root out corruption when even the president is at the mercy of a corrupt congress? With the disregard for democratic norms coming from Congress rather than an aggrandizing executive, Peru’s case is the opposite of what we have been taught to expect in a context of democratic erosion. However, Peru proves that congress can erode democracy in an incredibly dangerous way, even without support of the executive branch. This reveals a flaw in the conventional wisdom, which underestimates the threat of an erosive congress.
Political Science scholar Nancy Bermeo defines executive aggrandizement as a form of democratic backsliding where “elected executives weaken checks on executive power…undertaking a series of institutional changes that hamper the power of opposition forces to challenge executive preferences. “  Peru’s current situation might not look like the classic example of executive aggrandizement, but the actions of Congress certainly violate the spirit of democracy– many Vizcarra supporters have even called it a coup. The legislative branch cast aside institutional forbearance by invoking a contested (but legal) clause to remove the president for “moral incapacity”, breaking democratic norms by going against the will of the people. Furthermore, Peruvian lawmakers selected a new president from within Congress who would remain loyal to congressional interests, telltale signs of democratic erosion.
A political centrist, Vizcarra was elected for his promise to root out corruption in Peruvian politics. Vizcarra’s attempts at congressional and judicial reform included banning candidates with convictions from running for office and ending consecutive reelection for members of congress. After multiple anti-corruption legislation was repeatedly blocked, President Vizcarra took the controversial step to dissolve congress and call for new congressional elections. In most cases a president dissolving congress is a textbook example of executive aggrandizement. However, Vizcarra’s actions were necessary to push forward his anti-corruption measures without opposition from the deeply corrupt legislative branch. Following this bold decision, Vizcarra’s approval ratings spiked and over 80% of the Pervian public stood by his actions, further proving the widespread understanding of Congress as a threat to Peruvian politics.
In the midst of all the political chaos, it’s understandable to wonder just how and why Peru’s Congress enjoys the authority to unilaterally impeach a president that the majority of the population favors. Article 113, Section 1 of Peru’s constitution offers five reasons for the removal of the president, one of which is permanent moral or physical incapacity, as declared by Congress. The problem here is that there is no established definition of moral incapacity or agreed upon circumstances that constitute removal under this charge. After former authoritarian president Fujimori fled to Japan in 2000, Congress declared his absence due to “moral incapacity.” This set a dangerous precedent of impeaching presidents for “immoral action” rather than mental disability, which the constitution originally intended. Since then, Peru’s Congress has used the obscure clause to freely impeach presidents on grounds of immorality– code for corruption– as a means of bypassing elections. This legislative overreach threatens the integrity of Peruvian democracy, disregards the will of the people, and effectively renders free and fair elections null. A nationwide call for impeachment would be one thing, but Congress has not acted in accordance with public interest. Instead they have prioritized protecting their nearly unchecked power which they “monetize…through kickbacks, influence-peddling and populist legislation that favor[s] shadowy economic interests.” These actions echo the description of democratic backsliding, since the corrupt and anti-majoritarian behavior of Congress diminishes the rights of citizens to meaningfully engage with the state. 
Despite the overwhelming support for impeachment in Congress, President Vizcarra remains one of the most popular Peruvian presidents of his time. Nearly 80% of Peruvians opposed impeachment and demanded Congress focus their efforts on responding to the coronavirus pandemic and fixing the ailing economy. Peru is facing one of the world’s worst coronavirus outbreaks and highest per-capita mortality rates, with over 943,000 reported coronavirus cases and 35,000 deaths. Meanwhile members of Congress have set their sights on retaining power and deep pockets rather than solving the public health and economic crises.
Millions of Peruvians believe their government is deeply plagued by a corrupt political class that has placed their own self-interest above all else for far too long. Fed up with nearly a decade of dishonorable politicians preventing significant reform, thousands of Peruvians turned out to protest the impeachment of President Vizcarra and demonstrate their discontent with the government’s incessant corruption. Following six consecutive days of intense clashes between authorities and protestors, and the death of two young protestors at the hands of police, interim president Merino resigned. Protests immediately turned to celebration but Peruvian politics are not safe just yet. The resignation of Mr. Merino means Peru will have its fifth president in just five years, and whoever assumes the presidency next will face the dual challenge of winning over the public and working with a power-hungry Congress. Bermeo, Nance. “On Democratic Backsliding.” Journal of Democracy, vol. 27, no. 1, Jan. 2016, pp. 5–19.  Lust, Ellen, and David Walner. USAID, 2015, Unwelcome Change: Understanding, Evaluating, and Extending Theories of Democratic Backsliding.