On September 30, Peruvian President Martín Vizcarra dissolved his country’s Congress and called for new legislative elections. In response, opposition legislators refused to leave session, voted to suspend Vizcarra from the presidency, and named Vice President Mercedes Aráoz as acting president—all before she resigned the night of October 1.
What does this episode—predictably decried as a coup d’état by the opposition—say about Peruvian democracy? Unlike Alberto Fujimori’s self-coup in April 1992, where the president assumed full legislative and judicial powers and dragged the country into authoritarianism, Vizcarra does not seem bent on becoming a dictator. And it is certainly not a coup. Still, it is unclear what the medium-term effects of his actions will be.
On one hand, the early and contentious dissolution of Congress might be a reflection of the Peruvian political system’s poor institutionalization and politicians’ weak commitment to the norms of presidentialism. Unable to scrape by the final two years of his term with a divided government, Vizcarra may be bending the constitution to suit his circumstances. Alternatively, this crisis could represent the latest example of what might be called the “parliamentarization” of presidentialism, where the ability to dissolve an assembly or remove a president for political purposes actually reflect greater political accountability and responsiveness—and help preserve democracy.
The political science literature on this topic is instructive. Presidentialism is defined by the independent origin and survival of the chief executive and the legislature. According to Juan Linz, the fixed electoral terms of these two popularly elected institutions create a potential problem of rigidity, or inflexibility. Whereas a parliamentary system can oust or reinforce controversial prime ministers through a vote of confidence, it is much harder and potentially damaging for legislatures, to remove a president before the end of his term (see: the United States). Likewise, most prime ministers possess the constitutional prerogative to dissolve parliament in the face of gridlock, while presidents are forced to muddle through (see, again: the United States). Linz also argued that while frequent government turnover in countries like Italy or Japan—or contemporary Australia or the United Kingdom—may reflect government instability, they do so to protect the stability of the regime itself. So while individual governments fall, democracy survives.
Yet presidentialism has proven much more malleable than Linz supposed. In a 2008 article, political scientists Leiv Marsteintredet and Einar Berntzen observed 20 cases of premature presidential exit in Latin America. They argue that far from undermining democracy, interrupted presidencies via such things as early elections, impeachments, declarations of presidential incapacity, popular recall votes, and forced resignations may actually reduce Linz’s perils of presidentialism and help preserve democracy through what they call “flexibilization.”
This flexibilization starts to constitute parliamentarization when de facto agency relations run from the assembly to the executive in a way that is more than a one-off removal or dissolution. To paraphrase Auric Goldfinger: once is chance, twice is coincidence, and the third time is a pattern (of parliamentarization).
This type of executive-legislative relation is definitely a pattern in Peru—and one partially written into the country’s 1993 Constitution in the wake of Fujimori’s self-coup. Like other presidential constitutions, Article 113 establishes conditions under which the president may be removed from office (death; physical or moral incapacity; resignation; departure from the national territory without permission; and removal from office after having been penalized for impeachable offenses). Unlike most other countries, however, Article 134 includes clauses that allow the president to dissolve Congress “if it has censured or denied its confidence to two cabinets” and bring about new elections in the following four months.
Politicians have recently invoked both constitutional articles. Facing near certain impeachment, ex-president Pedro Pablo Kuczynski resigned in March 2018 after surviving an earlier impeachment attempt in December 2017. Since replacing Kuczynski, Vizcarra has repeatedly called for early elections as a solution to confront legislative gridlock. During his Independence Day speech to the opposition-controlled Congress on July 28 of this year, Vizcarra responded to legislative intransigence by calling on lawmakers to end their terms, and his, a year early by voting to hold a general election by April 2020.
Then, this past week, Congress appointed a new (opposition-friendly) judge to the country’s Constitutional Tribunal, causing Vizcarra to view the move as a vote of no confidence—negating the legislative body’s earlier vote of confidence in Vizcarra’s government. Considering a September 2017 vote of no confidence under Kuczynski, Vizcarra counted this more recent episode as a second strike to trigger the cabinet’s downfall as well as congressional elections. Congress then invoked Article 113 to suspend Vizcarra for 12 months.
The question now is: Is this just the pattern of institutional relations over the past three years? Does it reflect accountability?
Considering the frequency with which these mechanisms have been employed, they certainly do not appear to be ad hoc. Moreover, it is notable how these crises involve institutional actors actually interpreting the constitution rather than casting it aside: from December 2017 to March 2018 to September 2019, the military has remained in the barracks while politicians and high court judges decide political outcomes.
Certainly, constant instability and competing claims of democratic legitimacy are bad for a political system. But the effect of presidential challenges on democracy and stability is actually quite muted. In a systematic exploration of evidence from Latin America, Hochstetler and Samuels show that the measurable effects of challenges are “limited and ephemeral” and that they indeed represent a “workable solution to the stresses of governing under the separation of powers.”
So while Vizcarra’s controversial dissolution of Congress and/or Congress’s vote to suspend Vizcarra probably reflect problems within Peruvian politics (e.g. weak, non-programmatic parties, intransigence, a lack of forbearance, corruption) they do not necessarily indicate a weak commitment to the norms of presidentialism or presage authoritarianism. Simply put, in Peru, congressional dissolution and mechanisms to remove the president are institutional features of democracy, not bugs.
While inter-branch conflict is inevitable under presidentialism, in moderation, term flexiblization may improve political responsiveness and reduce gridlock without necessarily posing a risk to democracy. And if this is the case, then maybe Peru is demonstrating not how to avoid presidential crises, but rather how to mitigate their effects.
John Polga-Hecimovich is an assistant professor of comparative politics in the Political Science Department at the U.S. Naval Academy. The views expressed herein are exclusively those of the authors and do not represent the views of or endorsement by the United States Naval Academy, the Department of the Navy, the Department of Defense, or the United States government. You can contact Mr. Polga-Hecimovich at firstname.lastname@example.org