Corruption Accusations Leave Peru with No Clear President and No Congress

In this photo provided by the Peruvian presidential press office, Peru's President Martin Vizcarra delivers a national message from the government palace in Lima, Peru, Monday, Sept. 30, 2019. Vizcarra announced he had dissolved his nation’s opposition-controlled congress amid a bitter feud over his fight to curb corruption. (Andres Valle/Peruvian …
Andres Valle/Peruvian presidential press office, via AP

President Martín Vizcarra of Peru dissolved the nation’s Congress on Monday after it denied him the power to impose new hurdles towards appointing justices to the nation’s top court.

Congress replied by deposing Vizcarra and installing his vice president, Mercedes Aráoz, as chief executive — who resigned on Tuesday, leaving former lawmakers who insist they are still in power claiming that the head of the nation’s Congress is now the new president.

The president of the Congress, Pedro Olaechea, announced a meeting of the Permanent Commission of Congress — a constitutional body that is meant to fill the void of a full Congress when the president dissolves the legislature — for Wednesday evening. Some lawmakers are insisting, however, that Olaechea is the real president because he is third in the constitutional line of succession.

Vizcarra recently urged Congress to implement a new safeguard against corruption in the appointment of justices to the Constitutional Tribunal, the court that has the power to try federal civil servants. He proposed to make it necessary that the executive branch give a “vote of confidence” when the opposition-controlled Congress appointed a judge. Congress rejected the idea, arguing that the power to appoint judges is solely a legislative power.

The Peruvian president recommended the measure in light of a years-long, sprawling investigation into corruption in the highest levels of power of most South American states, beginning with Brazil. Prosecutors have credibly accused dozens of politicians of taking bribes from the Brazilian contracting firm Odebrecht. Odebrecht would request that politicians grant the company infrastructure contracts at exorbitantly high prices and kick back some of the extra money in bribes to ensure the contracts would keep coming.

In Brazil, the investigation into this corruption is known as “Operation Car Wash” and resulted in the arrest of dozens of politicians, including socialist former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva.

Odebrecht has ensnared politicians in a dozen countries, including Ecuador, Colombia, Venezuela, Chile, and Peru. Keiko Fujimori, the head of the conservative Popular Force party, is currently in prison over allegedly taking Odebrecht bribes.

Vizcarra became president last year after then-head-of-state Pedro Pablo Kuczynski resigned following the publication of videos seeming to show him attempting to buy off legislators. The videos were published in a political revenge attack by Fujimori against her brother, former lawmaker Kenji, who was implicated in the Kuczynski scheme. Kenji resigned from Popular Force in protest of his sister’s alleged corruption.

Both Fujimoris are the children of Alberto Fujimori, president of Peru in the 1990s known for eliminating Shining Path, a deadly Marxist terrorist group. Fujimori, now in his 80s, is serving time in prison over alleged human rights violations during his tenure.

Peru has also sent to prison former socialist President Ollanta Humala for Odebrecht corruption and attempted to try former president Alan García. García shot himself in April when members of the Brazilian prosecution team came to his home in Peru.

Vizcarra made the case that allies of politicians arrested on Odebrecht charges should not have the unchecked power to appoint judges who can exonerate them.

“This is about fighting corruption, protection, and immunity used to secure impunity,” Vizcarra said this week in demanding a check on Congress’s appointment power. “Behind the demand for transparency for the [appointment of] Constitutional Tribunal’s magistrates are millions of Peruvians.”

Congress refused, so Vizcarra used what he believes is his constitutional powers to dissolve the legislature on Monday and call for new elections on January 26, 2020. Article 134 of the Peruvian Constitution allows the dissolution of the Congress if the president “has censured or lost his trust in two members of the Council of Ministers.” The Permanent Commission replaces Congress until elections can be held, no later than four months from the dissolution of Congress.

Congress replied to the dissolution by calling the move unconstitutional and demanding access to their offices, now denied. They also attempted to swear in Vice President Aráoz as the head of state. She accepted, but resigned shortly thereafter on Tuesday, stating that she would wait for a decision from the Constitutional Tribunal on the legality of Vizcarra’s move.

Vicente Zeballos, the president of Peru’s council of ministers, said on Wednesday that Vizcarra has no intention of resigning or backing down on his dissolution of Congress. He added that, because the lawmakers who tried to appoint Aráoz president had already lost their seats to the dissolution when they tried to appoint her, their actions were invalid, as is her resignation, and Vizcarra still considers her the legal vice president.

Some members of the Popular Force party are refusing to see Vizcarra as president or accept their removal from power, instead stating that Olaechea, the head of the Congress, is the true president.

“Given the position that Congress has in the republic, constitutional succession [says] that the presidency belongs to Pedro Olaechea and he should call a general election,” Rosa Bartra, a Popular Force lawmaker, said on Wednesday.

Olaechea has not contested the presidency.

“For the moment, I am the president of the Permanent Commission,” he said, convening that commission on Wednesday.

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