Peru’s president, Pedro Pablo Kuczynski (PPK), was forced to reshuffle his cabinet last week after the opposition-controlled Congress passed a vote of no confidence against Fernando Zavala, PPK’s Prime Minister—forcing his resignation along with the entire cabinet. This is the second major legislative defeat that PPK’s government has suffered in the short year after he was elected president. Since the Fujimoristas earlier censored Jaime Saavedra, PPK’s Minister of Education. The former investment banker-turned technocrat/politician has faced increasing governing problems as Peru’s economic growth has slowed as a result the end of the commodity boom and as corruption scandals continue to mount as a result of ongoing investigations over doubtful business deals made by Odebrecht (who else?) in the country.
The road towards the House of Pizarro
PPK is a seasoned politician. Prior to his election as President of Peru in 2016, he served as Minister of Energy and Mines under President Fernando Belaúnde Terry (1980-1985) and both Minister of Economy and Finance and Prime Minister for President Alejandro Toledo (2001-2006). PPK, the son of German and French immigrants, holds a BA from Oxford University and an MA in Economics from Princeton University. He previously ran for the Peruvian presidency in 2011 as a candidate of the center-right coalition, Alliance for Change (Alianza por el Cambio), where he failed to make it to the second round despite receiving 18.5 percent of the vote.
The run-off was eventually held between the retired army lieutenant colonel, Ollanta Humala, and Keiko Fujimori, the daughter of Alberto Fujimori—Peru’s infamous political outsider who defeated the now Nobel-laureate, Mario Vargas Llosa, in the presidential election of 1990, and then went on to implement neoliberal reforms (known as the Fujishocks). The outsider president turned neoliberal reformer ruled the country in an ever-increasing authoritarian fashion until his fall from power from a raft of corruption scandals in 2000 (Fujimori escaped to Japan, a country from which he held a double-citizenship, and tried to return to Peru via Chile in 2005, before the country’s presidential election, only to be detained by Chilean authorities and extradited to Peru, where he is currently serving jail time for corruption, influence-peddling and human-rights violations).
In 2011, PPK publicly backed Keiko in the runoff, which she eventually lost after receiving 48.5 percent of votes.
In 2016, when PPK ran for the presidency again, he did so as the leader of his own political party, the center-right Peruanos por el Kambio (or Peruvians for Khange—the “K” in reference to his last name) and this time faced Keiko in the final runoff. Though he began as the underdog, his candidacy gradually gained popularity as the presidential race unfolded.
Peru has been labeled as a democracy without political parties. Newly formed parties serve as personal vehicles for attaining power, mostly forming around election cycles. In the country’s latest presidential election, no fewer than 19 aspirants ran for the presidency—each with the support of at least one of Peru’s short-lived parties. Of them, 10 made it to the first-round ballot, including two former presidents, Alejandro Toledo and Alan García (the latter was running for his third presidency, after serving the post from 1985 to 1990 and 2006 to 2011). Two of the most popular candidates, Julio Guzmán and César Acuña, were forced to drop out of the race by Peru’s electoral tribunal on charges of irregular proceedings within their party (Guzmán) and handing out cash to voters during campaign season (Acuña).
Through all this, PPK managed to survive Peru’s volatile presidential race and received 21.1% of votes, landing in second place behind Keiko’s 39.9 percent. PPK, 77-years old at the time, received 50.1% of votes in the runoff, making him the new tenant of the House of Pizarro—headquarters to Peru’s executive branch—reaching the pinnacle of power in his home country after a lengthy career.
The challenges of being a minority president
Unfortunately for PPK, his victory in the presidential election did not translate into a majority of seats in Peru’s unicameral legislature. PPK’s cobbled-together party only gained 18 seats in Peru’s 130-member Congress (14%). Across the aisle, the Fujimorista Fuerza Popular (Popular Force) got 73 seats (54%). The outcome left PPK in an uncomfortable situation; Peru’s semi-presidential system allocates much power in Congress, a branch with the faculty to either approve or oust a president’s cabinet through votes of no confidence.
If holding a minority of seats is already difficult for any given president, then PPK’s troubles are even greater due to the un-cooperative opposition he faces. And in his case it’s particularly rocky given the tense relationship between PPK and Keiko (the leader of the Fujimorista opposition). The two have barely interacted with each other since the latter lost last year’s presidential election. Their latest highly publicized meeting took place in July, where they discussed public policies—as well as the Odebrecht scandal, which has hit Peru’s political class particularly hard. Granted, this time they met in the House of Pizarro (their previous meeting, on December 2016, was hosted by Cardinal Juan Luis Cipriani—a show of the breakdown of dialogue between Peru’s new president and the head of the opposition).
The Fujimoristas have aggressively used their majority in Congress. Last December, Fuerza Popular forced the resignation of Jaime Saavedra, the Secretary of Education from 2013 to 2016. Saavedra had been designated by former president Ollanta Humala (2011-2016) and was the only cabinet member to survive the transition between presidents. An economist by training, with a PhD from Columbia University, Saavedra was leading much-needed reforms in education before being sacked by the Fujimorista opposition; coincidentally many members of the opposition held stakes in the educational business Saavedra was trying to regulate. Similarly, barely weeks ago, the Fujimorista-controlled Congress forced the resignation of Fernando Zavala, PPK’s Prime Minister, who was unsuccessful in standing up for Saavedra’s embattled substitute, Marilú Martens. In his place, PPK designated Mercedes Aráoz, an economist and experienced politician, who until her most recent nomination was Peru’s second Vice-president. PPK was also forced to make changes in key cabinet positions, including Economy and Finance, Health and Education.
However, the vote of no confidence passed by the Fujimorista opposition also puts pressure on their backs. According to article 134 of Peru’s Constitution, if the opposition passes two votes of no confidence against the Prime Minister and his cabinet, then the President has the faculty to dissolve Congress and call for new elections.
Though PPK’s presidency has encountered an uncooperative opposition, the complications he faces are part of a broader problem regarding the lack of stable governance in Peru’s democracy. Since Toledo was elected president in 2001, there have been 19 Prime Ministers. That’s an average of five per five-year presidency (some have lasted as little as 4 months in office).
A series of economic and judicial problems must be added to the government’s concerns. Peru, alongside the majority of Latin American and Caribbean nations, has faced the cooling of its economy with the end of the commodity boom. Peru is dependent on mineral exports—mostly copper, zinc and gold—which accounted for 64.7 percent of its exports in 2015, according to MIT’s Observatory of Economic Complexity. The fall in the price of commodity prices has taken a toll of Peru’s growth, as the World Bank calculates that GDP growth fell from 6.1 percent in 2012 to 3.9 percent in 2016 (though the country is better off than its regional neighbors, whose economies contracted -0.6 percent on average in 2016).
Peru’s political class has also been severely shaken by the Odebrecht scandal, which has politicians from all across Latin America jumpy. The Peruvian probe of the Brazilian construction giant has shed light on the extent of corruption within the country. Earlier this year, a local judge ordered the arrest of former president Alejandro Toledo (who ironically once campaigned against Alberto Fujimori’s corrupt administration), accusing him of receiving $20 million in bribes from Odebrecht. Unsurprisingly, Toledo, who currently resides in the U.S., has refused to return to Peru and is currently a fugitive from Peruvian justice. Likewise, a judge issued 18-months of preventive prison for another former president, Ollanta Humala, and his wife, Nadine Heredia, after linking them to receiving a bribe of $3 million from the Brazilian construction company. Prosecutors are also closing in on Alan Garcia, accused of overseeing fraudulent biddings for Lima’s subway (the Christ of the Pacific, a 121-foot statue of Jesus that was donated by Odebrecht during Garcia’s second presidency, serves as a reminder of corruption in Peru—and the troubles of dealing with its consequences). Amazingly, Peru’s last four elected presidents are either in jail or accused of crimes.
PPK himself has not been immune to the corruption probe. In March he had to declare as a witness to a probe concerning the irregular public bidding of the Interoceanic Highway, which connects Brazil with Peru, during Toledo’s presidency. Even Keiko’s name popped up in the personal agenda of disgraced businessman, Marcelo Odebrecht. Although Peru is one of the countries that has most extensively inquired into the shady dealings of Odebrecht in Latin America, many Peruvians (rightfully) fear that these investigations are just the tip of the ice-berg, and that much of the corruption that has damaged the country remains to be fully unveiled.
PPK has experienced a rocky first year as president of Peru. The economic slowdown in a mineral-exporting country adapting to the end of the commodity boom, combined with corruption probes with no end in sight, have not made PPK’s stay at the House of Pizarro easy, to say the least. Furthermore, his position as a minority president with an ill-disposed opposition has not eased his tenure.
The problems of governance are already being felt in the executive branch; PPK’s approval rating has dropped to 19 percent. A previous poll showed that 53% of Peruvians felt disappointed with their current government, while Keiko and her younger brother, Kenji, remain the country’s most popular politicians (holding 39% and 33% approval ratings, respectively). With regional and local elections scheduled for October 2018, PPK and his team must move quickly to demonstrate to Peruvians that their government stands for something beyond opposition to Fujimorismo.
Lucas Perelló is a PhD student in Politics at The New School for Social Research. You can follow him on Twitter at @lucasperello.