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Explained: Why Peru President Martín Vizcarra is facing impeachment

The proceedings began Thursday after the opposition-controlled Congress heard audio recordings of private conversations between Vizcarra and his close government aides, in which he allegedly admitted that he met with Cisneros and instructed his staff to downplay the meetings.

Written by Rahel Philipose | New Delhi | Updated: September 13, 2020 10:55:22 am
FILE PHOTO: Peru's President Martin Vizcarra attends a swearing-in ceremony at the government palace in Lima, Peru October 3, 2019. (Reuters)

Peru’s Congress has voted to begin impeachment proceedings against the country’s president Martín Vizcarra for “moral incapacity” after he was accused of obstructing an investigation into a fraud case involving a little-known Peruvian singer named Richard Cisneros.

The proceedings began Thursday after the opposition-controlled Congress heard audio recordings of private conversations between Vizcarra and his close government aides, in which he allegedly admitted that he met with Cisneros and instructed his staff to downplay the meetings.

As many as 65 lawmakers in the 130-member body voted in favour of opening impeachment proceedings against Vizcarra on Friday. The President’s opponents in Congress will debate and vote upon whether he should be removed from office next week. For Vizcarra to be impeached, at least 87 members will have to vote in favour of his removal, the New York Times reported.

Meanwhile, Vizcarra — who first came to power in 2018 — has vowed not to resign and accused the Congress of staging a political coup. “I am not going to resign,” he told reporters on Friday. “I have a commitment to Peru and I will fulfil it until the last day of my mandate.”

What is the case about?

The session on Friday was convened after the current president of Congress, Manuel Merino, received the three leaked audio recordings that allegedly implicate Vizcarra in the corruption case, BBC reported.

The Peruvian president is heard telling members of his staff to cover up his role in awarding singer Richard Cisneros, popularly known as Richard Swing, government contracts worth 175,400 soles ($49,500) to deliver pro-government motivational talks. The opposition has claimed that Vizcarra told his aides to downplay his two meetings with the singer.

A man sells newspapers carrying front-page stories on a corruption scandal involving Peru’s President Martin Vizcarra, outside Congress in Lima, Peru, Friday, Sept. 11, 2020.(AP)

The government contracts and Vizcarra’s links with Cisneros are currently being investigated by Congress and Peru’s auditor general, Reuters reported. The Peruvian President has been accused of wasting resources while the country is grappling with a mammoth economic crisis, escalated further by the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic.

Cisneros first stepped into the spotlight in May, when the press learnt that the Ministry of Culture had hired the singer as an entertainer and speaker in the midst of the economic crisis that had rendered several thousands of Peruvians jobless.

If Vizcarra is removed from office, Congress president and right-wing businessman Manuel Merino will replace him as the interim leader of the country until elections are held. The next general election is slated to take place in April and Vizcarra has already said that he will not be running again.

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How has Vizcarra responded to the decision?

Denying all the allegations, Vizcarra claimed that the leaked audio clips had been manipulated. “This is a lie that seeks to destabilise democracy and take control of the government,” he said, according to a New York Times report.

“If you want to impeach me, here I am, with my conscience at ease,” Vizcarra added during a press briefing on Friday. He acknowledged that he did know Cisneros, but said that he had no role to play in the contracts that were granted to him, AFP reported.

Vizcarra’s cabinet chief Walter Martos has said that his government will use every legal means possible to defend the president, Bloomberg reported. In an interview with RPP radio, he accused Congress of disturbing democratic order using an “arbitrary interpretation of the constitution”.

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Vizcarra’s troubled history with the Congress

This is not the first time the Peruvian Congress and the country’s current president have been at odds. In September last year, Vizcarra locked horns with Peru’s top lawmakers when they blocked his anti-corruption proposal by announcing that he was dissolving Congress. No party won an overall majority in the election that took place in January, BBC reported.

Vizcarra’s anti-corruption agenda has made him one of the countries’ most popular leaders — 60 per cent of Peruvians have voiced support for his government, while the Congress’ approval rating stands at merely 32 per cent, according to a survey by the Ipsos polling firm.

At the very onset of the coronavirus pandemic, Vizcarra was widely praised for imposing strict lockdown measures and rolling out mass testing before any other Latin American country. Despite this, due to Peru’s ill-equipped healthcare system and a growing economic crisis, the country recorded the world’s highest death toll per capita, according to the New York Times.

Many fear that Vizcarra’s impeachment at a time like this could only deepen the turmoil that the country is currently experiencing.

In the past, accusations of corruption have been used to bring down multiple presidents in Peru. In fact, Vizcarra’s predecessor Pedro Pablo Kuczynski resigned in 2018 following a similar corruption scandal. Critics say that instead of strengthening democratic functioning, the highly politicised corruption investigations destabilise the government further.

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Earlier this week, lawmakers also attempted to remove Finance Minister Maria Antonieta Alva, accusing her of not doing enough to prevent the economic slump observed since the pandemic began. Peru’s GDP contracted by 30 per cent in the second quarter — the deepest slump recorded in any major economy, Bloomberg reported.

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