Peru loses its prime minister. What next?

The EconomistPEDRO PABLO KUCZYNSKI (pictured above) has been Peru’s president for little more than a year, but already he has lost or reassigned 15 ministers. The biggest cull came on September 15th, when his government lost a vote of confidence in congress. That led to the resignation of the prime minister, Fernando Zavala, who was also finance minister, along with the rest of the 19-member cabinet. Mr Kuczynski reappointed most of them two days later. But Mr Zavala is gone, as are Marilú Martens, the education minister, whom the opposition accuses of mishandling a teachers’ strike, and three others. To many Peruvians the president, who has four years to go in office, already looks like a lame duck.

The source of his problems is his incomplete victory in last year’s presidential election. He narrowly won the popular vote in the second round against Keiko Fujimori, the daughter of a former president, Alberto Fujimori, who is in jail for human-rights crimes. But her party, Fuerza Popular (Popular Force), holds 71 of the 130 seats in congress. It has exploited to the full its power to make life difficult for Mr Kuczynski.

The quarrel is partly ideological. Mr Kuczynski, a former banker and World Bank official, is a socially liberal pragmatist whose main goals are to bring more workers into the formal labour market, improve public services and infrastructure and encourage economic growth. Ms Fujimori is aligned with conservative Catholic and evangelical Christians. Her party complains that the government is pro-abortion, too gay-friendly and has paid too little attention to people outside Lima. It has blocked or slowed down economic legislation and serially censured the government’s technocratic ministers.

The ministerial massacre leaves Mr Kuczynski looking enfeebled. Just 22% of Peruvians support him, a drop of 41 percentage points since he took office, according to a recent poll. Mr Zavala’s resignation is only the fourth by a prime minister after a confidence vote in Peru’s modern history.

Yet Mr Kuczynski’s position may be stronger than it looks. The new prime minister, Mercedes Aráoz, is well-liked. She was the top vote-getter among congressional candidates for Mr Kuczynski’s party, Peruanos por el Kambio (Peruvians for Change), and briefly ran for president in 2011. Most opposition parties, including Fuerza Popular, have welcomed Ms Aráoz and the new health and education ministers, who are more conservative than their predecessors. Even Ms Fujimori sounded mollified. The government still has “time to make things right”, she tweeted.

Mr Kuczynski may benefit from divisions within Fuerza Popular. Ms Fujimori’s brother, Kenji, a congressman, backed Mr Zavala in the confidence vote; some members of the party have called for him to be expelled. Ms Fujimori, who is only a little more popular than the president, hopes to run again in 2021. Her war against Mr Kuczynski risks coming across as self-serving; she may now become less aggressive.

The economy could also boost the president. GDP expanded by 2.4% in the year to the end of June. The government predicts growth of 4% next year, thanks partly to higher prices for copper, the biggest export. It plans to increase spending next year by 10% without increasing tax rates. Such largesse tends to make voters happy. “Fresh air is blowing…through the world economy,” declared Mr Kuczynski in his first meeting with his new cabinet on September 18th. He, too, needs a second wind.

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