Peru now has no president as the crisis takes a chaotic turn

LIMA, Peru (AP) – Who is the President of Peru? The answer to that question on Monday was nobody.

The political turmoil of the Latin American nation took a chaotic turn on Sunday when interim leader Manuel Merino was eliminated and Congress could not choose his replacement. That left Peru rudderless and in crisis less than a week after lawmakers sparked a storm of protest by removing President Martín Vizcarra, a popular anti-corruption crusader among Peruvians.

“In a deep public health and economic crisis, no one is at the head of government,” said Abhijit Surya, Peruvian analyst with the Economist Intelligence Unit. “It’s not a good sign.”

There are two possible outcomes to the ordeal: Congress could propose a new candidate who would vote by a simple majority, or the country’s highest court could step in. However, since neither path is guaranteed to find a solution, some Peruvians have called for new protests and the country is on the verge of collapse.

“I think this is the worst democratic and human rights crisis we have seen since Fujimori came to power,” said analyst Alonso Gurmendi Dunkelberg of the turbulent reign of the strongman Alberto Fujimori from 1990 to 2000.

Peru has a lot at stake: the country is caught in one of the deadliest coronavirus outbreaks in the world, and political analysts say the constitutional crisis has put the country’s democracy at risk.

Congress sparked the calamity a week ago when lawmakers overwhelmingly voted to oust Vizcarra. Using a 19th century clause, lawmakers accused him of “persistent moral incompetence” and said he took bribes of $ 630,000 years ago as governor of a small province in exchange for two construction contracts.

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Prosecutors are investigating the allegations, but Vizcarra has not been charged. He vehemently denies any wrongdoing.

The move outraged 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 investigated for possible crimes such as money laundering and murder. Vizcarra wanted to lift her parliamentary immunity – a move popular with Peruvians but not with the legislature.

Little-known congress president Manuel Merino, a rice farmer, was sworn into office last Tuesday when hundreds of Peruvians protested nearby. He promised to hold a scheduled presidential election in April. But his cabinet appointments annoyed many and a persistent police response fueled anger.

A network of human rights groups reported that 112 people were injured by projectiles, batons and tear gas inhalation during the protests on Saturday. Two died – Jack Pintado, 22, who was shot 11 times, including in the head, and Jordan Sotelo, 24, who was punched four times in the chest near his heart.

“Two young people were absurdly, stupidly and wrongly sacrificed by the police,” said Peruvian writer and Nobel Prize winner Mario Vargas Llosa in a video posted on Twitter. “This oppression – which is directed against all of Peru – must stop.”

The protests in Peru were unlike in recent years and were fueled mainly by young people who are usually apathetic about the country’s notoriously unpredictable politics. They come a year after a wave of anti-government demonstrations in Latin America calling for better conditions for the poor and the working class.

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“We want the voice of the people to be heard,” said protester Fernando Ramirez when he hit a spoon against a saucepan during a weekend protest.

Merino resigned on Sunday after most of his cabinet resigned.

The protests sent a resounding message to the political elite that the Peruvians will act as the control of Congress if they attempt to illegally seize power, said Steven Levitsky, a Harvard University political scientist who has studied Peru extensively.

“This is a very good day for Peruvian democracy,” Levitsky said.

But hours after cheering Peruvians filled the streets and cheered Merino’s departure, the country’s crisis was far from a solution.

Congress has relatively few options for a new president who will appease the protesters. An overwhelming majority – 105 of the 130 legislators – voted to remove Vizcarra. They were widely expected to choose the youngest president from among those who voted against Vizcarra’s overthrow.

“You’re looking for someone who is clean – not corrupt, not depraved, not ridiculous or selfish. You don’t have a lot of options, ”Levitsky said.

After Merino resigned, the leaders of Congress first appointed Rocio Silva, a lawyer and poet from the left Broad Front party, who would have become the country’s first woman president. But only 42 of the 119 lawmakers who cast votes supported her nomination.

A new candidate from the centrist Purple Party will go before lawmakers on Monday afternoon. Francisco Sagasti, an engineer who worked at the World Bank, will become Peru’s third president in a week. The Constitutional Court could also weigh up whether or not Congress’s efforts to oust Vizcarra were legal. However, some experts said their decision will not be retroactive.

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The timing of the crisis couldn’t be worse. Peru has the world’s highest per capita COVID-19 death rate and one of the worst economic contractions in Latin America. The International Monetary Fund is forecasting a 14% decline in GDP this year.

In Lima’s historic district – the center of the protests – demonstrators laid flowers and wrote messages complaining about the two young men who were killed. Many blame those who voted to remove Vizcarra.

“The 105 congressmen are the only ones to blame for her death,” said protester Rosa Rodriguez through her face mask.

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Armario reported from Bogota, Colombia.

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