LIMA, Peru – Peru’s political crisis was close to being resolved on Monday when Congress cleared the way for a senior statesman and consensus candidate to become the country’s third president within a week.
People waved the nation’s red and white flag and roared at the gates of Congress as Francisco Sagasti was elected the new legislature president of the centrist Purple Party.
The 76-year-old engineer has not yet been sworn in, but as head of Congress he will become the nation’s head of state by default. Peru does not currently have a President or Vice President, making him next in line.
It will now fall on Sagasti to heal a nation that has been hurt by a week of upheaval.
“It is a first step towards restoring trust between the people and the state,” said Samuel Rotta, President of the Peruvian chapter of Transparency International.
Applause broke out in the Legislative Palace when Sagasti received the required majority. A respected academic, he has consulted government institutions for decades and has held a position at the World Bank. Shortly after the vote, he took an oath to become President of Congress.
“We will do everything we can to give people back hope and show them that they can trust us,” he said in his first remarks.
Many in the Latin American nation are confident that Sagasti’s appointment will mark the end of a tumultuous week in which thousands took to the streets indignant at the decision of Congress to oust popular ex-president Martín Vizcarra. Two young men died and dozen were injured during the upheaval. Peru also spent more than 24 hours without a designated head of state.
Sagasti could steer the country back towards stability because he is in a stronger position than his predecessor to potentially win support from both Congress and protesters. He and his Purple Party bloc were among only 19 out of 130 lawmakers who voted against the removal of Vizcarra. That will earn him credibility among the demonstrators who condemned the fall as a takeover. Unlike Vizcarra, he also has a party in Congress that represents him.
“Sagasti is someone who has instilled the trust of many,” said Jo-Marie Burt, senior fellow at the Washington Bureau for Latin America. “He’s a random president – but I wouldn’t say he’s someone with no plan.”
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.
The protests that rocked 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 came a year after a wave of anti-government demonstrations in Latin America calling for better conditions for the poor and the working class.
Human rights groups accused the police of over-reacting to the protests and beat demonstrators with batons, rubber bullets and tear gas. The two protesters who died sustained multiple wounds – Jack Pintado, 22, was struck ten times, including in the head, and Jordan Sotelo, 24, four times in the chest near his heart, according to authorities.
“People on the street, in their homes, on their balconies and on social media are very, very angry,” said Rotta. “Peru is a country with a high level of distrust. Politics has intensified that deeply. “
At the center of the unrest has long been simmering tensions over corruption in Peru. Every living former president has been accused or charged – most notably in the massive Odebrecht transplant scandal in which the Brazilian construction giant admitted to distributing millions to politicians in exchange for lucrative public works contracts. Now half of Congress is also under investigation for crimes ranging from money laundering to murder.
Vizcarra attracted legions of followers to change that. He dissolved Congress last year, reformed the election of judges, and tried to lift the prosecutor’s immunity granted to lawmakers. But he didn’t have a party that would support him in Congress and deal with lawmakers constantly.
Legislators ousted him with a 19th century clause claiming he had shown “persistent moral incapacity”. They accused him of taking bribes of $ 630,000 years ago as governor of a small province in exchange for two construction contracts. Prosecutors are investigating the allegations, but Vizcarra has not been charged. He vehemently denies any wrongdoing.
The country’s highest court is currently examining whether Congress broke the law when it stepped down – a decision experts say would not be retrospective but could have implications for the future. Some analysts said the ordeal showed that Peru’s political system needed reform so that no branch of government would over-power.
“There is a serious issue of control and equalization,” said Rotta.
After Vizcarra was removed, then-Congress President Manuel Merino became President. The little-known politician and rice farmer faced daily protests. He promised to hold a scheduled presidential election in April. But his conservative cabinet appointments annoyed many. He resigned on Sunday, just five days after he took office.
A gloomy Covid record
The riots come as Peru is grappling with 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.
Sagasti was a mainstay in Peruvian politics. He was taken hostage by Tupac Amaru rebels at the Japanese ambassador’s residence in 1996. He holds a PhD from the University of Pennsylvania and has written numerous books, including one entitled “Democracy and Good Governance”.
Of course, Congress is likely to obstruct any anti-corruption reform effort. And many Peruvians will still want change. The reaction to Sagasti’s appointment, however, was decidedly different.
Unlike Merino, Sagasti was immediately greeted by international leaders, including the Secretary General of the Organization of American States, Luis Almagro.
“We trust his ability to lead the country through this crisis until the next presidential election,” Almagro wrote on Twitter.
In his speech to Congress, Sagasti recognized the deep wounds that lawmakers must work to repair before the elections. Wearing a black face mask and purple tie, he urged lawmakers to work together to ensure Peruvians feel recognized by an institution that few trust. He also paid homage to the two young men who died during the protests.
Protesters gathered in cities across the country on Monday evening to light candles and leave flowers in their honor at vigils.
“We can’t bring them back to life,” said Sagasti. “But we can take action through Congress and the executive to prevent this from happening again.”
Moments later, Sagasti left Congress and approached a crowd cheering for his appointment. He shook hands and waved. Some sang: “Sagasti, the President!”
“It couldn’t have been anyone else,” said Sandra Ramirez when she saw the new leader move in the crowd. “We’ll hope for the best of him.”