Incoming Peru president a political novice facing tough odds

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By FRANKLIN BRICENO and CHRISTINE ARMARIO

Associated Press

LIMA, Peru (AP) – The man due to become Peru’s next president has scarce experience governing but is known as a consensus builder who might have a shot at bridging divides after one of the most-bitter political crises in the Andean nation’s recent history.

Vice President Martin Vizcarra is a 55-year-old engineer by training whose four years as governor of a sparsely populated region in southern Peru counts as his most significant experience in political leadership before he is expected to be sworn into office Friday.

What little can be discerned from the new head of state’s thin record in governing indicates he knows how to bring opposing sides to the negotiating table – a skill that could be useful in repairing the administration’s relations with lawmakers who overwhelmingly favored President Pedro Pablo Kuczynski’s removal.

But many are skeptical Vizcarra will have any more luck than his predecessor in ruling with a domineering, opposition-controlled congress and fear his local-level experience won’t be enough to resolve a national standoff.

“Taking on the presidency of a country is a lot more complicated than having a role in resolving a mining conflict,” said Jose De Echave, a political analyst and former deputy minister for environmental management. “It’s a crisis of another magnitude.”

Vizcarra is from Moquegua, a department with a population of just over 161,000 known for its homes with trapezoid-shaped roofs and contrasting landscapes of lush agricultural fields and barren highlands. His father was a local mayor and regional boss for the once-dominant APRA party, a political movement with leftist roots but is now synonymous with corruption for many Peruvians. In interviews, Vizcarra has credited his father as being the most influential figure in his life, someone who instilled in him a social conscious.

The new president studied at Peru’s National University of Engineering and built a career in the construction industry, not entering the political arena until around 2006, when he narrowly lost a race for governor of Moquegua on the APRA ticket.

Two years later he spearheaded a series of protests against the unequal distribution of mining levies to Moquegua residents. Vizcarra has said that experience launched his political career. The two days of protests extended into a general strike that shut down Moquegua’s economy before a resolution was reached with the government.

In an interview with the newspaper El Comercio in 2016, Vizcarra said he knew then that if he entered politics he would be on the opposite side of the negotiating table but felt he could approach the job with special insight.

“I’ll know how to listen,” he said.

Three years later Vizcarra was elected governor of Moquegua, and once again a mining dispute thrust him into the center of conflict. He earned high marks for mediating dialogue between officials from the London-based Anglo American mining company and residents concerned that a copper mine project would contaminate local waters.

“He played a key role in finding a solution,” De Echave said.

Overall, Vizcarra’s tenure as governor is held up as one of the rare examples in the Andean nation of a regional leader who managed to both improve social indicators like education levels – his wife and his mother were primary school teachers – and avoid the stain of corruption so invasive in Peru. Aides said his daily habit of playing tennis and eating lots of fruit keep him even-keeled under pressure.

“He’s one of the few governors with a positive history,” said Steve Levitsky, a Harvard University political scientist.

But outside tiny Moquegua, Vizcarra is largely unknown in Peru. A March survey by international polling firm Ipsos found that 81 percent of Peruvians didn’t even know the vice president’s name.

He joined Kuczynski’s 2016 presidential campaign as an adviser and struck up a rapport with the former Wall Street investor that eventually led to his being selected as vice president.

Kuczynski appointed Vizcarra as the minister of transport and communication in 2016, but he lasted less than one year in the post. He resigned amid questions over a delay in the building of an airport in Cusco. Shortly thereafter he was appointed Peru’s ambassador to Canada, keeping a low and distant profile.

In a television interview at his home shortly before the election, Vizcarra described his political ascent as “gradual” and declined to address any presidential aspirations.

“I always go step by step,” he said. “That’s what’s given me results.”

Analysts expect Vizcarra to largely continue Kuczynski’s pro-business agenda, which enjoys broad consensus in Peru. A bigger challenge is dealing with the snake pit that has become the nation’s politics. Congress is dominated by politicians loyal to Keiko Fujimori, who is the daughter of former strongman Alberto Fujimori and who narrowly lost to Kuczynski in the last presidential election.

Two of Peru’s former presidents stand accused of accepting bribes from Odebrecht, the Brazilian construction company at the center of Latin America’s biggest corruption scandal. A third is under investigation and Kuczysnki is likely to face continued scrutiny following revelations his private consulting firm accepted $782,000 in payments from Odebrecht a decade ago, some at a time when he was a government minister.

Those and other scandals have made Peruvians so distrustful that about half say they want to see early elections for both congress and president, according to a Gfk poll taken this month before the revelation of secretly shot videos showing Kuczynski allies allegedly trying to buy the support of an opposition lawmaker to block his impeachment.

Still, there may be some reasons for Peruvians to be hopeful.

In a recent interview, Keiko Fujimori told a local television station that Vizcarra “knows provincial Peru, the deep Peru” and has the political experience to do a better job than his predecessor. Her Popular Force party has also lost some of its influence since the splintering off of a small faction of legislators led by her brother, Kenji.

In his only remarks since Kuczynski offered his resignation, Vizcarra said Peru’s recent turmoil “outraged” him and he was returning from Canada to “put myself at the disposition of the country.”

“I have the conviction that together once more we can come out ahead,” he said.

Vizcarra’s allies say the former construction impresario will quickly prove his mettle.

“How will he confront congress?” asked Hugo Espinoza, who worked with Vizcarra during his time as governor. “Building bridges, as he’s always done.”

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Associated Press writer Franklin Briceno reported this story in Lima and AP writer Christine Armario reported from Bogota, Colombia.

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