Thorne hangs by a thread

19 June 2017

As we went to press Alfredo Thorne’s future as minister of economy and finance hung by a thread. Opposition politicians from both the right and the left suggested that a motion of censure would be presented before Congress either on Monday (19 June) or Tuesday. If this happens it will seriously ratchet up the constitutional conflict between the legislative and executive branches.

Thorne went before Congress the previous Friday (16 June) to defend himself from charges that he used inappropriate forms of pressure on the Comptroller-General, Edgar Alarcón, to prevent him publishing a highly critical report on the government’s role in the Chinchero affair. See recent PSG article.  A selectively leaked version of the telephone conversation between Thorne and Alarcón was broadcast on a Sunday-night TV show.

If Thorne is ousted, it would be the most serious blow yet to a government less than one year old. The minister of economy and finance is by far the most powerful figure in government in Peru, exceeding in influence that of the prime minister. Thorne, a former employee of JP Morgan, had been personally selected by Kuczynski to fill this post even before the presidential campaign had begun in 2015.

Kuczynski has said that he intends to stand by Thorne. This would mean refusing to accept his resignation and forcing a vote of confidence in Congress. Were such a vote to be denied, he would have to reformulate his whole cabinet, possibly precipitating a constitutional crisis. The president has already lost two key ministers to parliamentary censure (or the virtual certainty of it): Jaime Saavedra (previously education minister) in December 2016 and Martín Vizcarra (previously minister of transport and communications) last month, the latter too over the Chinchero affair.

Also in the opposition’s sights is Interior Minister Carlos Basombrío, who is also due to face down his parliamentary critics in a congressional grilling (interpelación). He faces 39 questions from his congressional inquisitors in a session programmed for 20 June. If he too is censured and his head falls into the basket, it will further demonstrate the vulnerability of the present government to the Fujimorista opposition majority in Congress which never really accepted Kuczynski’s narrow win in last year’s second-round presidential elections.

Despite their own internal divisions, there are few signs that the Fujimoristas and their Fuerza Popular (FP) party are rethinking their role as (dis)loyal opposition. Letting up on a strategy that has already cost the Kuczynski administration two significant scalps and threatens two more does not seem to enter the political calculus. The plan appears to be to push political confrontation to the limit.

The Fujimoristas’ offensive is aided and abetted by the small rump of APRA congressmen, especially their most ebullient member Mauricio Mulder. The close collaboration between APRA and the Fujimoristas goes back to the years of Alejandro Toledo’s presidency, a time when APRA was a good deal stronger in Congress than it is now and when the Fujimoristas were a minority.

The style of constant harassment that infuses politics today is reminiscent of the tactics adopted at the time by APRA and its then leader, Alan García. Relentless pressure was brought against Toledo (in whose government Kuczynski was economy and then prime minister) designed to discredit the president and his ministers and to call into question their political legitimacy. The skill in doing so lay in maximising the aggression but without, in the last analysis, causing a complete constitutional breakdown. García, of course, was concerned not to push democratic institutions over the edge; he was the main beneficiary of Toledo’s drawn-out pain, subsequently to become president in 2006.

Whether the Fujimoristas (with APRA’s support) can pursue this sort of strategy from now until the 2021 elections is open to question, not least in view of their own internal differences – see PSG Newsletter – and the presence of other parties and politicians who also are eyeing up their chances of succeeding Kuczynski.

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