It seems Peruvians hate corrupt politicians, but love voting for them.
Although corruption investigations and reform are normally seen as a positive democratic mechanism, they can also cause voters to lose faith in democracy and politicians to seek out loopholes. On November 9th, the Peruvian Congress impeached President Martin Vizcarra on charges of moral incapacity, pertaining to bribery allegations during his time as Governor in 2011. The charges are based on little evidence; journalists believe the motive for impeachment was not democracy working to keep leaders accountable, but rather a legislative coup. The leader of the coup, Manuel Merino, was head of the Congress. He had previously tried to stage a military coup against Vizcarra but was unsuccessful.
During Vizcarra’s time in office he instated anti-corruption policies and was popular among Peruvians, with 70% of citizens opposed to his removal from office. However, he was not popular among other politicians who voted 105 to 19 to remove him on the basis of the uncorroborated allegations. Vizcarras and the Peruvian Congress have had a tricky relationship after he attempted to dissolve the body in 2019. Under Vizcarras’ reform policies, 68 law makers are under investigation. Measures regarding term limits were instituted to check the power of the legislature which is infamously corrupt.
Holding politicians accountable should show voters that politicians are not above the law and that checks and balances are working correctly. In reality, corruption investigations often lead elected officials to weaken laws, or manipulate investigations as a preventative measure so that corruption continues under the radar. Many Peruvians believe Merino’s motivation to unseat the current president was a plan to reverse anti-corruption policies and protect Congress from facing repercussions.
Corruption investigations that happen frequently can lead citizens to perceive the whole democratic system as rotten. Unsurprisingly, with the past four Peruvian presidents implicated in corruption scandals, only 28% of citizens are satisfied with Peru’s democracy. The prevalence of this type of situations can also foster support for populist and military movements that would do away with democracy entirely. A 2019 study by the Latin American Public Opinion Project found that 52% of Peruvians would justify a military coup due to high levels of corruption.
Thankfully, Merino did not hold power long and has since been replaced by Francisco Sagasti, resulting in three different presidents in a period of a week. While the interim president is seen as an improvement from Merino, the constant executive switching may lead voters to doubt democracy. This, alongside a declining economy and high rates of COVID-19 infection, may lead to low voter turnout in the upcoming presidential election. Citizens hearing about corruption and crime scandals regularly have led voters in other countries to view anti-corruption measures pessimistically, believing corruption is an unavoidable element of democracy (Vaishnnav 2018). A study on Brazilian voters finds that the majority feel corruption is a policy making element rather than a policy outcome problem, leaving Brazilian voters feeling helpless in its eradication (Pavao 2018). When corruption is viewed as a systemic issue, voters are less likely to punish corrupt politicians by voting them out. Instead, voters base their support on other issues such as economic policy. Peruvians had the chance early this year to vote in a new Congress, but without ample knowledge of the candidates,citizens just voted for more of the same types of candidates, allowing corruption to spread deeper into government. Some voters even view criminal activity in office as a badge of honor and pursue those candidates specifically (Vaishnnav 2017). Businesses in Peru frequently bribe politicians to influence their policy and campaign strategies, this practice only intensified after Vizcarra set limits on campaign donations.
Peruvians don’t spend much time learning about the differences between candidates. In a country with numerous candidates from the centrist party, it becomes hard to distinguish who would work to stop corruption once elected. Peruvian citizens are also known for deciding their vote last minute, voting based on the familiarity of a name. Another popular option when voting in Peru is to deface the ballot or leave it blank, a choice 40% of voters made in 2019. It is clear, though Peruvians have voiced their distrust in government and the prevalence of corruption, they aren’t sure how to combat it. It appears likely that the upcoming presidential election in April will have low voter turnout as citizens are consistently shown how corruption in government is inexorable (Pavao 2018).
Despite what seems probable, there are signs that, come April, Peruvians will be ready to vote out corruption. Following Merino’s power grab, citizens staged two political protests that were the largest in decades. The protests became violent, leading to the deaths of two people during clashes with the police and the disappearance of 40 other protestors who were most likely detained. Local leaders and the Church spoke out against the President. This mobilization of Peruvians played a large role in Merino’s fall from power, rejuvenating the power of the people mentality. Let’s hope Peruvians carry this democratic passion all the way to the ballot box in 2021.
Vaishnnav, Milan. “Law Makers and Lawbreaker.” In When Crime Pays: Money and Muscle in Indian Politics, 3-24. Yale University Press, 2017.
Pavao, Nara. “Corruption as the Only Option: The Limits to Electoral Accountability.” The Journal of Politics 80, no. 2 (July 2018): 996- 1010.