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Peru president dissolves congress amid attempts to curb corruption

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Peruvian President Martin Vizcarra dissolved congress Monday, exercising seldom used executive powers to shut down the opposition-controlled legislature that he accuses of stonewalling attempts to curb widespread corruption.

In a televised address, Vizcarra told the South American nation that he had decided to call new legislative elections after lawmakers proceeded with holding a controversial vote to replace almost all the members of the constitutional Tribunal.

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“We are making history that will be remembered by future generations,” he said. “And when they do, I hope they understand the magnitude of this fight that we are in today against an endemic evil that has caused much harm to our country.”

The stunning turn could spell new instability as Peru grapples with the fallout of the Odebrecht corruption scandal, plummeting faith in public institutions and an inexperienced president struggling to govern.

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Nonetheless, Vizcarra’s decision is likely to be widely welcomed by Peruvians who have been clamouring for new congressional elections to replace the majority party, led by a former first daughter and presidential candidate who is now behind bars.

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“Peruvians will not shed many tears,” said Steven Levitsky, a Harvard University political scientist who has extensively studied the nation.

Opposition leaders denounced the move as the work of a “dictator” and proceeded with pushing an impeachment vote against him, though it would carry only symbolic weight since their positions in congress are now considered vacated.

“This was the plan from the start,” said Milagros Salazar, a spokeswoman for Fuerza Popular, the party of Keiko Fujimori, the daughter of former President Alberto Fujimori who was once a commanding force herself in the country’s politics but is now jailed. “They think this is a monarchy, that’s what they want to impose.”

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Vizcarra, then the vice-president, rose to the presidency last year after President Pedro Pablo Kuczynski resigned following revelations that his private consulting firm had received undisclosed payments from Odebrecht, the Brazilian construction giant that has admitted to dolling out millions of dollars to politicians around Latin America in exchange for lucrative public works contracts.

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Though with little political expertise on his resume, Vizcarra rose in popularity as he championed anti-corruption initiatives. But he struggled to push legislation through congress, instead repeatedly utilizing a “vote of confidence” through which he could threaten to dissolve the legislature if lawmakers didn’t approve his proposals.

The mechanism is aimed at resolving conflicts between the executive and legislative branch and allows the president to shut down congress if lawmakers reject two such votes. Congress rejected a previous vote of confidence during Kuczynski’s administration.

Most recently, Vizcarra chastised lawmakers for rushing to a vote on replacing six of the seven magistrates on the constitutional Tribunal. The court is expected to decide 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 Odebrecht.

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

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Peru’s judicial system is notoriously corrupt, with judges caught on wiretaps negotiating deals on sentences for serious crimes.

Vizcarra warned he would dissolve congress if legislators went ahead with the magistrate votes before weighing his own proposal for reforming how magistrates are selected.

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But lawmakers pushed forward in defiance Monday, accusing Vizcarra of blocking what should be a “simple procedure” conducted in accordance with the law.

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

It is not the first time in Peru’s history that a president has dissolved congress. In 1992, Alberto Fujimori shut down congress, assumed legislative powers and suspended the constitution in what was regarded as an auto-coup.

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In contrast, Vizcarra’s shutdown is likely to be considered a legitimate use of constitutional powers celebrated by Peruvians who have little faith in elected leaders, Levitsky said.

Nonetheless, he added, dissolving the congress is likely to do relatively little to resolve deeper, structural issues. The Fujimorista bloc will likely lose its majority in a new election, but Levitsky said what could emerge is a fractious congress full of inexperienced legislators.

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