In Peru, the president changed three times within a few days. There were dead and injured in the streets. Is the country coming to rest now? The youth want a radical cut.
From Lima. In the midst of citizen protests and denunciations of a parliamentary coup, the new president, Manuel Merino, until yesterday head of Congress, took office. Merino has become the unexpected president of Peru after Parliament, in a decision widely rejected and questioned as to its legality, dismissed President Martín Vizcarra for alleged “permanent moral incapacity.” Vizcarra had taken office in March 2018, after the resignation due to corruption allegations by Pedro Pablo Kuczynski, of whom he was vice president, and since he did not have a vice president, the head of Congress had to replace him. Merino has come to the presidency with the backing of various groups – seven from the right, including Fujimori, and a small group from the left – that voted in Congress to remove Vizcarra. Several of these groups have in common that their top leaders and legislators face accusations of corruption. Merino was inaugurated in the presidency with the violent repression of the protests against him.
Since Monday night, knowing the decision of Congress to overthrow President Vizcarra, thousands of citizens have taken to the streets to express their rejection of this measure. The protests continued throughout Tuesday. Defying the restrictions due to the pandemic, the protesters have taken to the squares and streets of Lima and the main cities of the country. “Coup Congress”, “Merino does not represent me”, “Merino delinquent, you are not president”, chanted the outraged citizens, who wore masks and raised Peruvian flags and posters reading inscriptions such as “Merino is not my president” or “Merino usurper”. Yesterday, with Merino already as president, the police repressed the protesters with gas, pellets, water jets and shovels, who did not give in in their protests.
The new head of state is a little-known politician who belongs to the center-right Popular Action party, where he has always occupied a second level. His tenure as president of Congress, which began last March after the complementary parliamentary elections that followed the constitutional closure of the previous Parliament, was marked by his confrontation with the Executive and by a series of rules later declared unconstitutional. Two months ago he had already tried to reach the presidency in a previous process to remove Vizcarra, which at that time failed due to lack of votes.
In his first message to the country as president, which lasted only thirteen minutes, Merino defended, but without giving further arguments, the legality of the measure taken by Congress. He promised a cabinet of consensus and “with the best”, but analysts estimate that he will have serious problems to summon high-level personalities to form part of a government that was born with the shadows of illegitimacy and high unpopularity. At the time of going to press, he had not appointed his ministerial cabinet. He did not refer to the protests against him. After his swearing-in and first message, he disappeared from the scene.
The Merino regime – which will last eight months, until July of next year when the government that leaves the elections already called for April takes office– opens a period of uncertainty and political and social crisis in the midst of the serious health and economic situation due to the coronavirus pandemic, which has already claimed more than 900 thousand infections and about 35 thousand deaths. There are serious doubts about Merino’s ability to handle this crisis. There is concern about the future of anti-corruption processes, which Vizcarra supported, with many Merino allies who have brought him to power implicated in corruption complaints and very interested in overthrowing those processes.
On Monday night, shortly after his dismissal was known, Vizcarra indicated that there were legal questions to that decision, but that he had decided to accept it. In his last message as president he was accompanied by his ministers. Shortly after, he left the Government Palace. He left office with more than 50 percent support. A support that contrasts with the discredit of the Congress that dismissed him.
The next day, outside of the presidency, the first thing he did was meet with his lawyer to prepare his defense for the accusations against him of having received alleged bribes. He declared that the Merino government has no legality in its origin and has problems of popular legitimacy. This Thursday Vizcarra must testify before the prosecution.
Vizcarra has been accused of having collected bribes from two construction companies for about 660 thousand dollars when he was governor of the Moquegua region, between 2011 and 2014. The accusation is based on testimony that is still under investigation and in the corroboration process. But that didn’t stop Congress from going ahead with the impeachment of the president.
The Constitution gives immunity to the president, who cannot be prosecuted during his tenure and can only be dismissed for specific cases, such as treason, leaving the country without permission, preventing elections, within which the charges against Vizcarra do not fit. To circumvent this impediment, the congressmen forced the ambiguous figure of “permanent moral incapacity”, a cause of presidential vacancy. According to various constitutionalists, its use in this case has been unconstitutional.
“The meaning of the term permanent moral incapacity is that of a mental incapacity that makes it impossible to govern. It has been like this since the 19th century. The decision made by Congress is illegal, unconstitutional. This has been a parliamentary overthrow, ”said constitutionalist Omar Cairo.
The jurist Samuel Abad agrees to describe the removal of Vizcarra by Parliament as “unconstitutional”. “The figure of moral incapacity cannot be used, as has been done, to impeach the president. Here the votes have been imposed on the Constitution ”.
The main newspapers of the country questioned the removal of President Vizcarra. On the front page, the newspaper La República headlined “Congress gives Coup d’état”, and El Comercio put on its front page “Congress leaves the country in uncertainty” and described as “shameful” the parliamentary vote that removed Vizcarra and put in the power to Merino.
In dialogue with Page 12, the sociologist Alberto Adrianzén pointed out that “what happened in Congress deepens the crisis in the country.” “With this,” he adds, “we are entering a phase of tension and polarization, which will be reflected in the next elections. It’s hard to say now who can get the most out of this, but I think radicalism is going to gain ground ””
“What has happened is terrible for democracy. What has prevailed in Congress is an ambition for power. The Merino government may be an unworkable government. Although it will be very short, it can do a lot of damage, “says political scientist Martín Tanaka.
Four presidential candidates for the April elections, the former president Ollanta Humala, the leftist Verónika Mendoza, the centrist Julio Guzmán and the rightist George Forsyth, they spoke out against the removal of Vizcarra by Congress, which they harshly criticized.
Dhe Peruvian parliament has ousted President Martín Vizcarra for “moral unfit”. The removal took place after a twelve-hour marathon session on Monday evening. 105 MPs voted for Vizcarra’s removal, 19 against.
The office is taken over by the chairman of the House of Representatives, Manuel Merino from the center-right party “Volksaktion”. He will hold the office until July 2021. Before that, Peru will elect a new president and parliament on April 11th. It was the second dismissal proceeding against Vizcarra within a few weeks.
Vizcarra came to power in 2018 following the resignation of former President Pedro Pablo Kuczynski. Like its predecessor, there were allegations of corruption against Vizcarra. The case took off when the press discovered that the Department of Culture was paying around ten thousand dollars for the services of a relatively unknown artist. The artist is said to be an acquaintance of Vizcarra. Sound recordings later leaked out in which Vizcarra allegedly requires staff to cover him.
Earlier allegations were also unearthed. Vizcarra is accused of taking bribes from companies in 2013 and 2014 when he was governor of the southern region of Moquegua. None of the allegations against him have so far been confirmed. Critics therefore refer to the removal of Vizcarra as a covert congressional coup.
Behind the dismissal is a longstanding power struggle between parliament and the executive branch. Since taking office, Vizcarra had been fighting a bitter struggle against corruption and nepotism and advocating reforms in the political and judicial sectors. He was a thorn in the side of the political class, whose representatives are themselves exposed to serious allegations of corruption.
Vizcarra’s position was also weak as he had no party behind him. Vizcarra, however, was extremely popular among the people. Thousands of Peruvians flocked to the streets on Monday evening to support Vizcarra. He criticized the basis for his impeachment, but said he would not take legal action against it to prevent further instability.
The impeachment comes at a bad time for Peru and is likely to further destabilize the country. Peru has the world’s highest per capita mortality rate for Covid-19 and is facing one of the deepest recessions in its history. The dismissal, which according to surveys was only supported by 20 percent of the population, could turn Peruvians against the political class. This makes the scenario with a view to next April’s elections even more unpredictable than it already is and opens the gates to populist outsiders.