Lima, Peru (AP) – Who is the president of Peru? The answer to this question was Monday no one.
Political turmoil in the Latin American country took a messy turn on Sunday when interim leader Manuel Merino resigned and Congress was unable to decide on his replacement. That left Peru without a rudder and in crisis less than a week after lawmakers ignited a storm of protest by removing President Martin Vizcarra, an anti-corruption campaigner hugely popular with Peruvians.
“No one is at the top of the government in a deep public health and economic crisis,” said Abhijit Surya, a Peruvian analyst at The Economist Intelligence Unit. “This does not bode well.”
There are two potential pathways to this ordeal: Congress could present a new candidate for approval by a simple majority or the nation’s highest court could intervene. But with neither path guaranteeing a solution, some Peruvians called for new protests and the country on the verge of collapse.
“I think this is the most serious crisis of democracy and human rights that we have seen since Fujimori was in power,” said analyst Alonso Gormendy Dunkelberg, referring to the turbulent rule of strongman Alberto Fujimori from 1990 to 2000.
Peru has a lot at stake: The country is in the midst of one of the world’s deadliest outbreaks of the Coronavirus, and political analysts say the constitutional crisis has put the country’s democracy at risk.
Congress sparked disaster a week ago when lawmakers voted overwhelmingly to impeach Vizcarra. Using a 19th-century clause, lawmakers accused him of “permanent moral incompetence,” saying he took more than $ 630,000 in bribes for my building contract when he was governor of a small county years earlier.
Prosecutors are investigating the charges, but Vizcarra has not been charged. He strongly denies any wrongdoing.
The move angered many in Peru, who denounced it as an illegal seizure of power by a Congress full of inexperienced politicians looking out for their own interests. Half of lawmakers are under investigation for possible crimes, including money laundering and murder. Vizcarra wanted to get rid of their parliamentary immunity – a move common to Peruvians but not with the legislature.
Manuel Merino, the little-known president of Congress, a rice farmer, was sworn in last Tuesday as hundreds of Peruvians protested nearby. He promised to keep the presidential elections scheduled for April. But the cabinet appointments angered many, and the brutal response by the police ignited anger.
A network of human rights groups reported that 112 people were injured in Saturday’s protests from projectiles, batons and tear gas inhalation. Two died – Jacques Bentado, 22, who was shot 11 times, including in the head, and Jordan Sotillo, 24, who was shot four times in the chest near his heart.
“The policemen have sacrificed in a ridiculous, stupid and unfair way,” Peruvian writer and Nobel Prize winner Mario Vargas Llosa said in a recorded video posted on Twitter. “This repression – against the whole of Peru – must stop.”
The protests that rocked Peru were different from any seen in recent years, and were largely fueled by young people indifferent to the country’s sporadic politics. They came a year after a wave of anti-government demonstrations around Latin America to demand better conditions for the poor and the working class.
“We want the voice of the people to be heard,” said demonstrator Fernando Ramirez, while hitting a bowl with a spoon at the weekend’s protest.
Merino resigned on Sunday after most of his cabinet members resigned.
Stephen Levitsky, a professor of political science at Harvard University who has studied Peru extensively, said the protests sent a resounding message to political elites that Peruvians would be a watchdog over Congress if they attempted to take power illegally.
“This is a very good day for democracy in Peru,” Levitsky said.
But hours after jubilant Peruvians filled the streets, rejoicing at Merino’s departure, the country’s crisis was far from resolved.
Congress has relatively few options for a new president who would please the protesters. The overwhelming majority – 105 of 130 deputies – voted in favor of removing Vizcarra. It was widely expected that they would choose the newest president from among those who voted against Vizcarra’s removal.
“You’re looking for someone who is clean – not spoiled, unspoiled, who doesn’t act in a ridiculous way that takes care of personal interests. You don’t have many options,” Levitsky said.
After Merino’s resignation, congressional leaders first nominated Rocio Silva, a lawyer and poet from the left-wing Broad Front party who was to become the country’s first female president. But only 42 of the 119 lawmakers who cast their votes supported her candidacy.
A new candidate from the centrist Purple Party will appear before lawmakers Monday afternoon. Francisco Sagasti, an engineer who worked at the World Bank, will become Peru’s third president in a week. The Constitutional Court can also consider whether or not congressional efforts to overthrow Vizcarra are legal; However, some experts said their decision would not be retroactive.
The timing of the crisis couldn’t be worse. Peru has the world’s highest per capita death rate from COVID-19 and has experienced one of the worst economic downturns in Latin America. The International Monetary Fund expects a 14% drop in GDP this year.
In Lima’s historic quarter – the focal point of the protests – protesters laid flowers and wrote letters of mourning over the killing of the two young men. Many placed the blame squarely on those who voted to dismiss Vizcara.
“The 105 members of Congress are the only ones guilty of their deaths,” Rosa Rodriguez shouted through her face mask.
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