World News

Peru’s President Hangs On to Power, but at What Cost?

Posted December 22, 2017 8:20 p.m. EST

LIMA, Peru — The president of Peru is safe, for now.

President Pedro Pablo Kuczynski avoided being removed from office Thursday after a congressional motion to impeach him narrowly failed.

But even as the drama in Peru’s Congress halted the upheaval of ousting the country’s leader, it also revealed the president’s tenuous hold on power. And it showed the strength of far-right politics in Peru, a country that returned to democracy only 17 years ago.

Kuczynski pleaded his case before lawmakers who had introduced a motion to remove him from office this week. With a Congress dominated by the opposition Popular Force, a right-wing party whose leader ran against Kuczynski in the last election, many had expected the vote to result in his removal.

But a faction of the right-wing party, which was founded by the daughter of the country’s jailed former authoritarian leader Alberto Fujimori, surprisingly swung the late-night vote in favor of Kuczynski.

Some constitutional experts said the crisis was driven by congressional overreach. Because of Peru’s authoritarian past, its system of government gives Congress significant powers to shape the executive branch and other government institutions. But no one had tried to use those powers to this extent until now.

Cesar Landa, a law professor at the Pontifical Catholic University of Peru and a former member of the country’s Supreme Court, said the Popular Force party had “attempted an untraditional coup d'état.”

This year, the Popular Force party — whose political philosophy is often referred to as Fujimorismo — forced Kuczynski to fire his entire Cabinet by refusing to endorse his nominees. At the time, his supporters had advised the president to use a little-known constitutional measure to force new legislative elections. Kuczynski didn’t go that route, but this week he said he regretted not doing it.

“A mistake that I now see clearly was to expect anything else from our rivals,” Kuczynski said. “I opted for dialogue and not confrontation.”

Then, other opponents — this time from the left — said he lied during a congressional inquiry by stating he had no professional ties to Brazilian construction giant Odebrecht, a company at the center of a complex graft scandal. It was later revealed that a financial services company he owned had received $782,000 from Odebrecht.

That led to the motion of impeachment.

The motion, on the grounds of “permanent moral incapability,” has been tested only once before — with Fujimori himself — but only after he had fled Peru for Japan and resigned from the presidency.

Fujimori, a hard-right authoritarian leader, was in power from 1990-2000 before being convicted on corruption and human rights abuses and sentenced to 25 years in prison. He has served 12 years, but he says that his health is deteriorating and that he should be pardoned.

Even from prison, though, he is still influencing politics, and his supporters, “Fujimoristas,” have continued to dominate the legislature. Hector Becerril, a Popular Force member who voted for impeachment, said Fujimori urged members of his party, by phone, to cast votes of abstention and not vote in favor of the president’s removal.

During Thursday’s vote, details of Fujimori’s petition for a presidential pardon and release were also leaked to local news outlets. Some legislators speculated that Kuczynski made a deal with the Popular Force to pardon Fujimori in exchange for keeping him in office, a claim that the president’s party has denied.

Cesar Azabache, a lawyer and former state prosecutor, said that if Kuczynski pardoned Fujimori it would be a “moral failure.”

“If the discussion has been resolved by this exchange, it weakens the system in an extreme way,” Azabache said.

But even as the Popular Force wields immense power, the party appears fractured.

At its helm is Keiko Fujimori, Fujimori’s daughter, who is not a member of Congress, but who ran for the presidency in the last election and was ultimately defeated by Kuczynski by a few thousand votes. Her brother, Kenji Fujimori, was among the 10 Popular Force party members who cast votes of abstention, ultimately swaying the vote in favor of Kuczynski’s remaining in office.

During the latter half of the hourslong debate, Kenji Fujimori was seen pacing the halls while texting and making calls. Established party members approached and appeared to scold him, underlining the tensions within the party.

Becerril, the Popular Force lawmaker who voted for impeachment, said he saw no problem with Fujimori asking for a pardon but not if it left Kuczynski in office.

“What is wrong is that the pardon be exchanged so that a president remains unquestioned for corruption,” Becerril said.

Other members of the party who voted for Kuczynski’s removal denounced those who abstained.

“I have voted against corruption,” Miguel Torres said, adding that disciplinary action was being considered for Popular Force members who didn’t vote for impeachment. The party that had initially introduced the motion to impeach Kuczynski last week, the left-wing Broad Front, said that splitting the Popular Force was the objective when the party took the action.

Marco Arana, leader of the Broad Front, said the vote was also intended to send a message.

“Tell the president that he cannot lead the country kneeling before Fujimori,” Arana said Thursday.

After the hearing, Kuczynski tweeted a victorious rallying cry to the country: “Peruvians. Tomorrow a new chapter starts in our history: our country’s reconciliation and reconstruction.”

Despite his victory, the president and his associates have remained silent about how they plan to steer the government going forward, and haven’t addressed the questions about a potential quid pro quo for releasing Alberto Fujimori from prison.