Less than a week after Martín Vizcarra was deposed as Peru’s president in a fast-track impeachment process regarded by some Peruvians as a coup, the situation in the Andean nation has grown more volatile as demonstrations mount against the country’s new leaders.
About a dozen protesters were injured in clashes with the police on Thursday night after thousands of people poured into central Lima in opposition to new leader Manuel Merino, who ousted Mr Vizcarra in a controversial parliamentary vote on Monday night.
Congressman Gino Costa described the gathering as “probably the largest in Peru in the last 20 years”.
The protests were sparked by Monday’s dramatic and unexpected vote to impeach Mr Vizcarra, who stood accused of corruption relating to his time as a regional governor. He denied the charges but, using a vaguely-worded clause in the constitution, members of congress voted overwhelmingly to remove him on the grounds of “permanent moral incapacity”. Hours later, Mr Vizcarra quit.
Usually, his job would go to the vice-president, but Mr Vizcarra had no deputy, the consequence of previous battles between the executive and congress. The post instead passed to the house speaker, Mr Merino, a relatively unknown and unremarkable career politician, who was sworn in as Peru’s unlikely president the next day.
Many protesters said Mr Merino does not represent them and want Mr Vizcarra reinstated, even if he subsequently is charged with corruption.
“There’s a great controversy as to whether this impeachment was constitutional or not,” said Mr Costa, a member of the Purple party — the only bloc that backed Mr Vizcarra in the impeachment vote.
“The country has reacted to it. We’ll see what the reaction is,” he told a webinar organised by the Washington-based Inter-American Dialogue on Friday.
What happens next is unclear.
In theory, Mr Merino will remain in office through next year’s elections and hand over to the winner in July. He has said he will respect the electoral timetable, but his opponents fear he will use his position as a springboard to run himself or promote a candidate of his choosing.
Mr Merino is a member of Acción Popular, which has a vague centre-right populist agenda and is the largest party in Peru’s fragmented congress.
The Constitutional Court is likely to rule on the impeachment process. If it finds the vote was unconstitutional, Mr Vizcarra could be reinstated. If not, Mr Merino will be emboldened to carry on.
Another option is that Mr Merino is forced to transfer power to a caretaker who guides the country into next year. Congressman Luis Roel has been mentioned as a possible contender. He is a member of Mr Merino’s Acción Popular but voted against the impeachment.
Mr Merino has named his cabinet, to be led by a controversial conservative, Antero Florez-Aráoz, but still needs it to be rubber-stamped by parliament. Some parties have said they will back it.
“If Congress refuses to endorse the cabinet, it is difficult to see where Merino could turn for more ministerial candidates,” consultancy Teneo noted.
The stand-off has raised concerns abroad.
Most Latin American governments want to see what the court decides before recognising Mr Merino as president. The Organisation of American States expressed its “deep concern over the new political crisis” and insisted elections must go ahead as planned. New York-based Human Rights Watch argued that the impeachment vote poses “a serious threat to the rule of law in the country”.
The crisis comes as Peru deals with one of the worst cases of coronavirus in the world. More than one in every 1,000 Peruvians have died from the virus, one of the highest rates anywhere. The economy is expected to contract by 12 per cent this year, one of the deepest recessions in Latin America.
“Even if immediate protests die down, Merino’s fragile legitimacy and controversial allies are likely to make for a volatile few weeks,” Teneo noted.