LIMA – Peruvian caretaker President Francisco Sagasti and his Cabinet face a series of challenges in the coming months, including building citizen confidence in the political system, generating institutional stability, overcoming ongoing health and economic crises and putting the country firmly on a democratic path.
Even so, the 76-year-old elder statesman and member of the centrist Purple Party begins his tenure as one of the few Peruvian politicians who enjoys the respect of the citizenry and initially has the support of young people who flooded the streets nationwide to oppose last week’s appointment of former congressional speaker Manuel Merino as interim president.
Merino, who took office on Nov. 10 after popular head of state Martin Vizcarra was ousted by Congress the day before for “permanent moral incapacity” based on corruption allegations stemming from his time as governor of a small province, himself stepped down amid the protests after less than a week in office.
1.- GENERAL ELECTION
One challenge facing Sagasti between now and the scheduled end of his term in July 2021 is to ensure that a free and fair general election is carried out on April 11 and that the choice of the electorate is upheld.
Vizcarra, who was popular for his push to fight endemic corruption, had called a general election for that date and set in motion the mechanisms for that vote.
Merino then promised the balloting would be held as scheduled, but many Peruvians saw in his elevation to the presidency an attempt to postpone the election and shield his political allies from justice.
Sagasti has much more credibility among ordinary citizens because his Purple Party was the only faction in Congress to oppose Vizcarra’s ouster as a bloc.
His main challenge will be to ensure his government’s neutrality in the balloting even though he himself had been a Purple Party candidate prior to his ascension to the presidency.
Sagasti’s appointment this week as congressional speaker, and by extension the person constitutionally tasked with leading the country until mid-2021, was approved by 93 of 130 votes in the unicameral legislature.
That backing seems to indicate that lawmakers have partially taken responsibility for the political crisis that rocked the country in the wake of Vizcarra’s ouster.
Those who promoted that independent head of state’s removal from office are now much weaker politically and their parties have been left divided, making it unlikely they will pose a significant obstacle to Sagasti’s governability.
Even so, anything is possible in Peru’s volatile politics and the interim president will need to keep a watchful eye on congressional developments.
3.- POPULAR MOBILIZATION
Meanwhile, a new force has emerged that had seemingly been disregarded for years by Peru’s political class: a politically active and aware citizenry that forced out Merino and now will be looking to flex its muscle and insist that its demands be taken into account.
Sagasti has started off on the right foot in that regard, delivering an empathetic inaugural address on Tuesday that was specifically aimed at Peruvian youth who took part in the street protests last week that led to Merino’s resignation on Sunday.
During that speech, he promised there would be no impunity for police repression that led to the deaths of two protesters: Inti Sotelo and Jack Pintado.
The formation of a technocratic, centrist Cabinet that includes some members of Vizcarra’s administration appears to be aimed at lowering social tensions, but the risk remains that those moves will be seen as too timid by young people demanding more profound changes and even a constitutional overhaul process like the one now underway in neighboring Chile.
4.- THE PANDEMIC
Peru has among the world’s highest COVID-19 deaths per capita – more than 35,000 fatalities to date in a nation with a population of around 33 million people.
In his first move to combat the coronavirus, Sagasti has brought back as health minister Pilar Mazzetti, who had served under Vizcarra and is widely credited with achieving the first positive results in combating the disease.
5.- THE ECONOMY
Peru, however, also is facing a severe economic crisis that rivals the health emergency in its seriousness, with Vizcarra’s initial stay-at-home order having crippled Peru’s economy and caused gross domestic product to plunge by 30 percent in the second quarter.
Sagasti therefore will need to chart a new course that gets people back to work while keeping the virus under control.
Doing so while restoring budget stability will be a tall order, however, as tax revenues have plummeted and the budget deficit has soared during the pandemic.
A new law that allows large pension withdrawals also is a cause for concern for the new administration and investors.