Peru’s fifth president in five years, Manuel Merino, was forced out of power on Sunday, just five days after taking office, as massive protests swept the South American country– which remains without a leader as of Monday. The turmoil began on November 9, when centrist Martin Vizcarra, Merino’s popular predecessor in office, was impeached by the Peruvian legislature on grounds of “permanent moral incapacity” over unproven charges of corruption.
The countrywide demonstrations that have rocked the nation since have been compared with the unrest that marked the turbulent era of authoritarian President Alberto Fujimori from 1990 to 2000. Violent clashes have so far led to two deaths, scores of injured and over 40 missing, and the government’s hardfisted response has drawn criticism from several quarters, including a scathing rebuke by Nobel literature laureate Mario Vargas Llosa. So, what brought upon this crisis in Peru?
Martin Vizcarra’s impeachment
The 57-year-old engineer, Martin Vizcarra, a centrist figure who is not affiliated with any political party, became the “first” vice-president of the Andean country (there are two) in July 2016, and became president in March 2018 after then-incumbent Pedro Kuczynski resigned over corruption charges.
Vizcarra promised an anti-graft agenda, initiating reforms to tackle corruption in the legislative and judicial branches of government, and vowed not to entertain another bid for the presidency when his term ended in 2021. Through his tenure, Vizcarra was able to garner support nationally.
Ever since he assumed office, however, Vizcarra had a fraught relationship with Congress, Peru’s 130-member unicameral legislative body, and had it dissolved in 2019, triggering a constitutional crisis. To his dismay, snap elections in January this year again saw parties opposed to his rule return to a dominating position.
Since the election, the Peruvian Congress has sought to remove Vizcarra from office twice. In September this year, after the release of audio recordings allegedly implicating Vizcarra in an influence-peddling scam, Congress launched its first impeachment bid. Vizcarra denied the charges, and the bid failed due to lack of support.
The second attempt was launched in October over unproven corruption charges worth 2.3 million soles ($640,000) against Vizcarra, dating from when he was governor of the southern Moquegua region between 2011-14. This endeavour succeeded on November 9, with 105 voting in favour and 19 against holding Vizcarra responsible under a 19th-century clause for “permanent moral incapacity”, despite him vehemently denying any wrongdoing.
With Vizcarra gone, Congress chief Manuel Merino, a member of the centre-right Popular Action party, assumed the presidency in an interim capacity a day later on Tuesday. 📣 Click to follow Express Explained on Telegram
Protests against Merino
During his two-and-a-half years in power, Vizcarra had amassed wide popularity, especially among the Peruvian youth, as an anti-corruption crusader. So, when the impeachment trial came through last week, his supporters accused Congress of orchestrating a parliamentary coup.
Thousands of protesters thus took to the streets in various parts of Peru– which has already been disproportionately impacted within the continent by the coronavirus pandemic, and whose economy is expected to go through a 14 per cent reduction this year, as per the International Monetary Fund.
Agitators asked that Merino resign, despite his promises of acting as a unifying figure, and of holding the presidential elections as scheduled in April 2021. Tensions kept escalating towards the end of the week, leading to the death of two students and dozens wounded on Saturday.
The deaths of 22-year-old Jack Pintado, shot 11 times with metal pellets, and 24-year-old Inti Sotelo, hit four times, caused a furore, further intensifying calls for Merino to leave. The Lima-based El Comercio wrote in its editorial, “…the new Executive has been left without any defence of legitimacy or moral authority, largely because of its own clumsiness, pettiness, and insistence on error. They have to leave the government palace as soon as possible.”
Most of Merino’s cabinet resigned, and he too followed suit on Sunday, tendering an “irrevocable” resignation and leaving Peru rudderless. Reports said that Congress is now looking for a palatable replacement, but few expect that the appointment of another one of their nominees would pacify protesters. Opponents of the legislature, including Vizcarra, have instead asked that Peru’s top court should step in and decide the legality of the impeachment process, as a possible verdict in his favour could help keep Vizcarra’s political ambitions afloat.
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