Peru’s interim president resigns amid protests and constitutional crisis

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Peru’s acting president resigned on Sunday as the country plunged into its worst constitutional crisis in two decades following massive protests sparked when Congress ousted the country’s popular leader.In a short televised speech, Manuel Merino said Congress acted within the law when he was sworn in as head of state on Tuesday, despite claims by protesters that lawmakers staged a coup parliamentary state.

“Like everyone else, I want the best for our country,” he said.

The politician agreed to resign after a night of unrest in which two young protesters were killed and half of his cabinet resigned. Peruvians applauded the decision, waving their nation’s red and white flag through the streets of Lima and chanting “We did it! But there is still no clear playbook for what is to come.

Congress has scheduled an emergency session Sunday afternoon to select a new president.

People in a Lima Merino snack bar announce his resignation in a televised message. (Luka Gonzales / AFP via Getty Images)

Meanwhile, ex-President Martin Vizcarra – whose ouster sparked upheaval – called on the country’s highest court to intervene.

“It is impossible that the institution that plunged us into this political crisis, which paralyzed Peru for five days, with deaths, is going to give us a solution, choosing the person who suits them best”, declared Vizcarra .

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

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

Ex-president accused of corruption

Congress expelled Vizcarra using a 19th century clause that allows the powerful legislature to impeach a president for “permanent moral incapacity.” Lawmakers accused Vizcarra of taking more than US $ 630,000 in bribes in exchange for two construction contracts while he was governor of a small province years ago.

Prosecutors are investigating the allegations but Vizcarra has not been charged. He vehemently denied the charges.

Martin Vizcarra speaks outside the presidential palace after lawmakers voted to remove him from office in Lima on November 9. (Martin Mejia / The Associated Press)

Merino, a former congressional leader, stepped in as interim president, but his six-day reign has been marred by constant protests. The little-known politician and rice farmer has vowed to maintain a planned vote for a new president in April. This hardly influenced the Peruvians who were reluctant to accept it.

Half of members of Congress are themselves investigated for suspected crimes, including money laundering and homicide. Polls show Vizcarra was most eager to complete the remainder of his presidential term, which expires in July. As Peruvians took to the streets, police responded with batons, rubber bullets and tear gas.

Repression intensifies

A network of human rights groups reported that 112 people were injured in Saturday’s protests and the fate of 41 others was unknown. Health officials said the dead included Jack Pintado, 22, who was shot 11 times, including in the head, and Jordan Sotelo, 24, who was shot four times in the chest near his heart.

“Two young people have been absurdly, stupidly, unfairly sacrificed by the police,” Peruvian writer and Nobel Prize winner Mario Vargas Llosa said in a recorded video shared on Twitter. “This repression – which is against all of Peru – must end. ”

The protests shaking Peru are unlike any seen in recent years, fueled largely by young people generally apathetic to the country’s notoriously erratic politics. Protesters are unhappy in Congress for staging what they see as an illegal takeover as well as Merino’s choice to lead his fledgling government.

A protester clashes with police in Lima on Sunday. (Angela Ponce / Reuters)

Its prime minister, Antero Flores-Araoz, was a former defense secretary who resigned in 2009 after clashes between police and indigenous protesters in the Amazon left 34 dead. Alberto Vergara, political analyst at the University of the Pacific in Peru, said many saw the new Cabinet as “old, bitter, outdated, closed to the world.”

In remarks ahead of Saturday’s upheaval, Merino denied the protests were against him, telling a local radio station that young people were demonstrating against unemployment and could not complete their education due to the pandemic. For many, it shows how out of touch Congress is.

“We want the voice of the people to be heard,” protester Fernando Ramirez said, slamming a spoon against a pot during a demonstration.

Protesters hold a sign in ‘murderous’ Spanish shortly before Merino announces his resignation in Lima on Sunday. (Rodrigo Abd / The Associated Press)

According to the National Association of Journalists, there were 35 attacks on members of the media between Monday and Thursday, almost all by police officers. Rights groups have also documented the excessive force against protesters, the use of tear gas near homes and hospitals and the detention of protesters.

“We are documenting cases of police brutality in downtown Lima,” Jose Miguel Vivanco, director of Human Rights Watch for the Americas, wrote on Twitter on Saturday. “Everything indicates that the crackdown on peaceful protesters is intensifying. “

“Peru deserves to move forward”

If Congress proceeds with the selection of a new leader, he may have relatively few options to appease the protesters. An overwhelming majority – 105 out of 130 – voted to remove Vizcarra. They are generally expected to choose from among those who were against the hasty surprise dismissal of the former president.

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 contractions in Latin America. The International Monetary Fund projects a 14% drop in GDP this year.

Protesters gather outside the Congress building in Lima on Sunday. (Sebastian Castaneda / Reuters)

In resigning, Merino said he had fulfilled his responsibility with “humility and honor” and that it was a challenge that he “accepted and did not seek”. He accused anonymous actors of trying to “confuse the country” into believing Congress wanted to expel Vizcarra in order to delay the next presidential vote.

He also took a hit on the protesters, saying there were groups of young adults “interested in producing chaos and violence.”

“I call for peace and unity for all Peruvians,” he said. “Peru deserves to move forward. “

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