Peru president, legislators clash as polemical vote proceeds

Lawmakers pushed forward Monday with a vote to select an almost-full slate of new magistrates for Peru’s Constitutional Tribunal despite President Martín Vizcarra’s warning that the move threatens his fight against corruption and that he will dissolve the opposition-controlled legislature.

Legislators began selecting magistrates in the latest clash between congress and the president but halted voting amid an uproar in the chamber.

“We are returning to dark times,” lawmaker Marco Arana said as he urged legislators to suspend the vote and instead consider an initiative by Vizcarra to change how magistrates are selected.

Peru is facing mounting instability as Vizcarra is stonewalled by a congress where the party of jailed former first daughter Keiko Fujimori holds a majority, corruption scandals place high-ranking politicians behind bars and the executive vows to wield rarely used powers.

“Normal democratic politics has descended into institutional warfare,” said Steven Levitsky, a Harvard University political scientist.

Vizcarra, a little-experienced politician who became head of state last year after President Pedro Pablo Kuczynski resigned, has been in a steadily escalating feud with congress as he tries to advance initiatives like holding early elections that could push legislators out of power.

Last week he chastised legislators for rushing a vote to replace six of seven magistrates to the Constitutional Tribunal, one of Peru’s highest courts. The tribunal is expected to decide on several important cases in the months ahead, including a habeas corpus request to free Fujimori, who is being held as prosecutors investigate her for allegedly laundering money from Brazilian construction giant Odebrecht.

Though the terms for all six magistrates had expired, Vizcarra, legal observers and human rights organizations have criticized the proceeding for its speed and lack of transparency. The El Comercio newspaper reported Monday that six of the candidates up for consideration are facing potential criminal or civil charges for alleged kidnapping, extortion and sex abuse.

Peru’s judicial system is notoriously corrupt; judges have been caught on wiretaps negotiating deals on sentences for serious crimes.

On Friday, Vizcarra announced he’d push a vote for new rules on how magistrates are selected through a “vote of confidence,” a mechanism to resolve conflicts between the executive and legislative branch he has invoked several times.

Under Peru’s constitution, if congress rejects two such votes, the president has the right to dissolve the legislature. Lawmakers rejected a previous vote of confidence during Kuczynski’s administration.

Vizcarra told Peruvian television station América over the weekend that if legislators proceeded with a vote to appoint new magistrates he would consider it a rejection of the initiative he is proposing.

“We’ll have to act according to the constitution,” he said.

Lawmakers like Mauricio Mulder accused Vizcarra Monday of distracting the nation with a senseless confidence vote instead of tackling issues like crime and blocking what should be a “simple procedure” to select judges.

“The political crisis we’re in is only Vizcarra’s fault,” he said.

Salvador del Solar, president of Vizcarra’s Council of Ministers, urged legislators to halt the vote on selecting new magistrates, saying it would fuel already widespread mistrust in Peru’s public institutions.

If Vizcarra does proceed to dissolve congress it would be only the second time in Peru’s recent history. In 1992, strongman Alberto Fujimori shut down congress, assumed legislative powers and suspended the constitution in what is regarded as an auto-coup.

In contrast, a congressional shutdown by Vizcarra would likely be considered a legitimate use of constitutional powers celebrated by Peruvians who have little faith in their elected leaders, Levitsky said.

The South American nation is reeling from corruption scandals stretching across nearly every branch of government. Nearly every former living president is under investigation for participation in the Odebrecht corruption probe. Company executives have admitted to doling out millions to politicians in exchange for lucrative public works contracts.

“Peruvians will not shed many tears if it’s closed,” he said.

Dissolving congress would nonetheless do relatively little to resolve deeper, structural problems in Peru, Levitsky said. The Fujimorista bloc would likely lose their majority in a new election, but he said that could emerge is a fractious congress full of inexperienced legislators.

“For now democracy is probably safe because everyone is weak,” Levitsky said. “That guarantees a certain pluralism, but that leaves Peru vulnerable to a demagogic politician.”


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