Within hours of being impeached, Peru’s Martín Vizcarra abandoned the presidential palace and went home © Peruvian Presidency/Reuters

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The human toll and the economic damage wrought by the coronavirus pandemic have hit Latin America harder than any other developing region.

As tens of millions of Latin Americans slide back into poverty and gaping inequalities of wealth and opportunity worsen, populists have gained fresh force. It was only a question of time before they claimed political scalps among the region’s market-friendly technocratic governments.

Peru’s pragmatic centrist president Martín Vizcarra was the first. After congress voted 105-19 to impeach him on Monday over corruption allegations, Mr Vizcarra chose not to fight. Within hours, he abandoned the presidential palace and went home, leaving a country in turmoil.

Mr Vizcarra denies the corruption claims. He is well-liked by Peruvians and investors. He was not planning to seek re-election in April.

None of that was enough to save him from a rancorous, populist congress amid one of the worst coronavirus emergencies. A long strict lockdown devastated the economy but failed to save the country from the world’s second highest per capita virus death tolls

“Peru has been a populist case study waiting to happen,” said Christopher Sabatini, Latin America fellow at Chatham House. “There has been this anti-corruption fever in Peru going back to [the 1990s]. Anti-corruption is a tool wielded most effectively by populists and there’s a toxic combination of a collapsed party system and corruption fever which is now biting Vizcarra.” 

Peru’s new interim president is the head of congress, Manuel Merino. To the alarm of investors, Mr Merino has backed a number of populist initiatives, including twice allowing Peruvians to withdraw early part of their pension savings, plus a law freezing debt service to banks and a law suspending highway toll payments. 

“The economic crisis after the pandemic is huge and many lawmakers are trying to appear helpful to people,” said Maria Luisa Puig, who follows Peru for the consultancy Eurasia. “They are eager to win public support.”

Mr Vizcarra’s ousting was only the latest sign of the force that the coronavirus pandemic has lent to Latin America’s populists.

Evo Morales is greeted by residents of his hometown Orinoca, Bolivia after returning from exile © Paolo Aguilar/EPA/Shutterstock

In neighbouring Bolivia, former president Evo Morales made a triumphant return on Monday to a country he fled last year after his efforts to secure a fourth consecutive term in office were clouded by accusations of electoral fraud. His Movement Towards Socialism (MAS) won an overwhelming victory in elections last month, a stinging rebuke to a conservative caretaker administration backed by the US and the EU.

Latin America’s two biggest countries, Brazil and Mexico, are governed by populist leaders who enjoy a close working relationship with Donald Trump. They have played down the pandemic and kept their popularity high by resisting tough lockdowns and emphasising the need to keep the economy going, despite some of the world’s highest death tolls.

Next to face the populist tide will be Ecuador, where presidential elections are held in February. In a now-familiar script, President Lenín Moreno’s centre-right, investor-friendly government has rock-bottom opinion poll ratings amid the devastation wrought by the pandemic and leftwing populist Andrés Arauz is mounting a strong challenge.

Later next year, it will be Chile’s turn. Latin America’s former model economic performer has seen its investor-friendly image eroded by a wave of riots protesting at inequality and poor public services. Billionaire president Sebastían Piñera will not be running again and November’s contest in a country once feted for its moderation is likely to be fought between populists from the left and right. A communist mayor is among the front-runners.

Shannon K O’Neil, senior fellow for Latin America at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York, noted that Latin Americans had been demanding more from their governments even before the pandemic. Now, she said “it’s a perfect space for populists to come in whether from the left or the right. This is very fertile ground for outsiders to take political advantage.”

 


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