‘Too many mistakes’: Peru’s president threatened with impeachment after shaky start

Peru’s president Pedro Castillo is facing possible impeachment just four months into the job as his chaotic leftwing government stumbles from one crisis to another.

Lawmakers are due to vote on Tuesday on whether to start proceedings against him, and although the motion looks unlikely to succeed, the opposition seems certain to launch other, similar attempts in the new year.

“It’s not whether he’ll be impeached but when,” said Denisse Rodríguez-Olivari, a Peruvian political scientist. “That’s the question. Because there’ve been too many mistakes too soon in his government.”

The president’s approval rating, which peaked at 40 per cent in September, has sunk to 25 per cent, according to a recent poll by the Institute of Peruvian Studies. Castillo has lost majority backing in every demographic, including rural and poor voters who were the bastion of his support.

According to a survey by Ipsos, some 60 per cent want Peruvian lawmakers to at least debate the impeachment motion, which lists half a dozen reasons why Castillo should not stay in office, from alleged illegal campaign financing to his decision to resume relations with Nicolás Maduro’s Venezuela. Some 30 per cent think he should be removed from office.

The opposition would need a two-thirds majority in congress to remove Castillo from power, which looks unlikely for now, but Peru has a record of impeaching its presidents. The peculiarly-worded constitution makes it relatively easy to get rid of them. In 2018 Pedro Pablo Kuczynski resigned the presidency to avoid impeachment and last year Martín Vizcarra was impeached.

A farmer and schoolteacher from a poor, remote village in Peru’s northern highlands, Castillo had no previous experience of public office when he won election in June. His administration was plagued by controversy from the start when he named a Marxist hardliner as his prime minister.

Guido Bellido lasted just 69 days. Other members of cabinet have gone — a foreign minister quit over his comments about Shining Path, the Maoist group that terrorised Peru in the 1980s and 1990s; an interior minister was axed for hosting a raucous party despite coronavirus restrictions he signed into law; and a defence minister quit in a scandal over favouritism in deciding which officers should get promoted within the armed forces. On average, Castillo has changed a minister every two weeks.

Last month prosecutors investigating alleged influence peddling found $20,000 in cash stashed in a bathroom inside the presidential palace — a scandal dubbed “Watergate” by local press. One of Castillo’s aides said the money was his legitimate savings but quit anyway.

There have been policy missteps too. Castillo has sent mixed messages on key issues — promising, for example, to nationalise natural gas reserves one day only to walk back his comments on Twitter the next. His new prime minister abruptly announced the government would seek to close four privately owned mines “as soon as possible”, sending the share price of one of the companies tumbling. Within days, the government had backtracked on its announcement.

Castillo has yet to give a single press conference or media interview, and rarely talks about crises emanating from his ministries.

Many of those who voted for him, hoping for a fresh start and a radical change of direction in a country long ruled by entrenched Lima-based elites, might be prepared to forgive him his inexperience, but recent allegations of cronyism and graft could prove damaging.

A local television station broadcast videos that appeared to show Castillo and his officials holding late-night meetings at a friend’s house with people linked to construction and real estate companies with state contracts — in contravention of Peruvian law, which says such meetings should be placed on public record. Castillo said the meetings were purely personal.

“I strongly reject having had any kind of participation in irregular acts to favour any particular interest,” he said in a televised address, arguing that his opponents would “never accept that a farmer . . . a teacher, leads this country and promotes structural change”.

Peruvians have seen three of their recent former presidents jailed in connection with bribery investigations. Back-to-back graft scandals have disgraced one politician after another in recent years.

“The only difference I see with the rest of our presidents is that Castillo wears a hat,” said housekeeper Blanca Cabrera, 41, referring to Castillo’s trademark wide-brimmed sombrero. She said that while she had not voted for him, she had at least hoped he might be “less corrupt” than previous leaders. “They all want the same thing,” she concluded.

The president’s supporters say his opponents have been angling to topple him ever since June, when his razor-thin electoral victory prompted his defeated rival Keiko Fujimori to make unfounded allegations of electoral fraud.

“They’ve been trying to get rid of him even before his inauguration,” said Cesar Rivas, a 31-year-old nutritionist in Lima. “Let him be investigated, but he has to finish his mandate. That’s democracy.”

The erratic start to government has hit the economy. Just days after Castillo’s inauguration, the currency, the sol, breached the four-to-the-dollar mark for the first ever and has yet to recover. Former finance minister Waldo Mendoza said capital flight from Peru in the second and third quarters of this year was the biggest in decades.

Esteban Tamayo, a Citibank economist who covers Peru, predicts economic growth of 2.9 per cent next year, dragged down by investment growth of just 0.1 per cent.

“Peru has a potential growth rate of around 4 per cent and [under a different administration] could have been growing even above that rate next year,” he said.

Still, Tamayo said, impeaching the president could wind up making Peru’s governability problems worse.

“I think the best political outcome is that there is no impeachment and the government carries on,” he said. “It’s not a great scenario but it would bring relative calm and some investors are beginning to understand that.”

Additional reporting by Gideon Long in Bogotá

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