© Reuters. PHOTO: A view of the Congress building in Lima, Peru, September 30, 2019. REUTERS/Guadalupe Pardo
By Alexander Villegas and Brendan O’Boyle
LIMA (Reuters) – As deadly protests rage across Peru, the political battle is taking place inside the halls of Congress, cordoned off from the streets by hundreds of police, armored vehicles and a maze of doors.
Lawmakers are at loggerheads over whether to hold early elections this year after the December 7 ouster of leftist President Pedro Castillo during his tenure, an event that sparked weeks of protests that killed 48 people.
Despite the violence and despite polls showing a majority of Peruvians want the election postponed, Congress appears to be at a dead end. At least three electoral bills have been rejected and others thrown out ahead of debate in the past week, with parties on the left and right apparently unable or unwilling to compromise.
“They fight like they’re in a street market,” said Juliana Gamonal, 56, a food delivery girl in Lima. “At the moment we don’t have good leaders, everything is for their benefit, not for the people.”
Reuters spent last week in the 130-seat Congress in the capital, Lima, talking to lawmakers to ask why Peruvian politics is in such disarray. Tensions among the deputies were high, often turning into arguments.
A number of problems underpin the dysfunction.
First of all, Congress is unusually fragmented. There are 13 different voting blocs, partly caused by rules that allow a group of five MPs to easily create a new one. The two largest parties have only 24 and 15 seats, respectively, making it difficult to achieve the majority needed to pass legislation.
“When there are more factions, it doesn’t help when you have to debate and reach agreements,” said Paul Gutierrez, a congressman from the Magisterial Bloc, a group of 10 lawmakers who broke away from the far-left Peru Libre.
As the main political factions weakened, disillusioned voters turned to fringe parties – including a religious sect and Peru Libre – exacerbating the divide.
Meanwhile, constitutional rules make it easier to try to impeach – leading splinter blocs to use it to punish presidents they don’t like, something that has happened regularly in recent years.
Castillo was ousted in an impeachment trial in December that he sought to avoid by illegally dissolving Congress and passing the resolution, a failed move that led to his arrest on “rebellion” charges.
It was Castillo’s third impeachment attempt since he took power in July 2021 and the seventh impeachment attempt in the last five years – during which there have been six presidents.
Tania Estefany Ramirez, a congresswoman from the main right-wing Popular Power party, was unapologetic, saying that saving Peru from overspending and corruption is their priority.
“Unfortunately, we will always be the bad guys in the movie because we will be eyeing every salt, every ministry that moves in our country,” she said.
But political gridlock and street violence have weakened governance, hurt the economy and threatened supply in the world’s No. 2 metal supplier.
Disillusionment among voters has grown, and parliament now has the support of just 7%. Angry protesters are demanding the dissolution of Congress and early elections.
To try to resolve the impasse and appease the protesters, new President Dina Boluarte, who was Castillo’s deputy, called for snap elections, urging Congress to act quickly.
Popular Force presented the bill, as did Peru Libre. But both were rejected, with some MPs hesitating to support the opposition and disagreements over whether the bill should include a referendum on the new constitution.
Flavio Cruz, a Peru Libre congressman, blamed the right for “taking over” the country, but admitted that Congress had failed the people by failing to reach an agreement.
We have the dysfunctionality of the parliament, which was supposed to preserve harmony, unity, dialogue, agreement and consensus, he said. “We never had an understanding between us. That’s what the population is punishing. Our inability to come to an agreement.”
The days of closed-door talks seem to have progressed little, and cliques held together over red-line policies.
An outraged Boluarte introduced her own bill, which called for elections in October and a new president to take office on December 31. A congressional committee accepted the bill Friday afternoon, but shelved it on a technicality before it even came up for debate.
Even if a deal is finally reached, a reset of Peru’s troubled political system is unlikely, analysts say.
“There is little agreement within the political parties on what to do,” said Peruvian political analyst Andrea Moncada.
“If we have an election in a year or by some miracle by the end of this year, the parties registered to participate are the same ones that are in Congress right now.”