LIMA, Peru – Peru caught political turmoil on Tuesday as anger grew over a congressional vote to oust the country’s popular president for handling the pandemic and unproven corruption allegations years ago.
Thousands flocked to the streets of the Peruvian capital Monday evening to protest the ousting of President Martín Vizcarra, denigrate the legislature and demand her resignation. Several politicians who were not in Congress denounced the fall as a disguised coup. Some said any new president should be considered out of wedlock.
But the outgoing leader, who came to power even after the overthrow of another president, quickly announced that he would not pursue legal challenges despite insisting that he had not committed a crime.
“Today I am leaving the government palace,” said Vizcarra. “I’m going home today.”
According to the chain sequence, the head of the legislature will take his place. Lawmakers were planning a ceremony to swear the new leader on Tuesday morning.
Analysts have called the legislature’s move an overt and risky takeover, with Congress already unpopular while Vizcarra is widely praised for its campaign against corruption. The speed of action against the president and the lack of evidence led some political analysts to warn that Congress could jeopardize Peruvian democracy.
“Finding a president and destabilizing the country’s democracy in the midst of this type of crisis for no serious reason is more than ruthless,” said Steve Levitsky, a Harvard University political scientist who has studied Peru extensively.
The overthrow was backed by 105 lawmakers – far more than the 87 votes it took for a two-thirds majority to remove Peru’s president. Many said they would vote for his removal on behalf of dead loved ones.
“Because of his negligence and incompetence, we have lost thousands of compatriots,” said legislator Robinson Gupioc during the more than five-hour debate.
Just weeks after Vizcarra easily weathered another move vote, Monday’s action could spell a new chapter of uncertainty for the country, which has the world’s highest per capita COVID-19 death rate and is facing a deep recession.
Legislators brought impeachment proceedings after Vizcarra received more than $ 630,000 in exchange for two construction projects in 2011-2014 as governor of a small province in southern Peru. The allegations are under investigation, but Vizcarra supporters have questioned their veracity, finding they came from construction managers accused of corruption. Prosecutors could shorten a possible prison term in exchange for the information.
In his defense, Vizcarra warned opposition lawmakers that a hasty decision to remove him could have dire ramifications for the already desperate nation. He came to the Congress wearing a mask with the image of a condor flying over the Andes and said, “History and the Peruvians will judge our decisions.”
Speaking to lawmakers who at times spoke out against him, Vizcarra said he did not have the authority as governor to initiate the contracts in question, which would have to go through a lengthy multi-stakeholder approval process. One contract was for an irrigation project and the other was for a hospital.
In Peru, lawmakers can recall a president on the vaguely defined grounds of “moral incapacity”. Vizcarra told them that such a vote “would heighten fears about the viability and institutions of Peru and have serious economic consequences”.
In numerous speeches, however, the legislature went beyond the corruption allegations and explained why it wanted to eliminate Vizcarra. Many pointed to Peru’s high virus levels. fatal lack of oxygen and the Abuse of rapid antibody tests to diagnose cases although they cannot detect infection early during illness. At least 34,879 people have died among 922,333 people infected with the virus in Peru, a nation of 32 million people.
“I can never forgive that,” said legislator Maria Cabrera.
Vizcarra rose to the highest office in the country in 2018 after then-President Pedro Pablo Kuczynski resigned for allegedly failing to disclose payments from Brazilian construction giant Odebrecht to his private consultancy firm.
Vizcarra made fighting corruption his primary responsibility and is one of the nation’s most popular leaders in recent history.
But he was unable to make friends in Congress, and last year dismissed lawmakers in a bold move hailed by citizens as a victory over dishonest politicians. He has also pushed through initiatives to curb corruption by changing the choice of judges and preventing politicians with crimes from running for office.
Numerous legislators themselves are facing criminal investigations.
Jo-Marie Burt, senior fellow of the Washington Bureau for Latin America, said the impeachment was “terribly destabilizing for Peru”.
“It creates tremendous uncertainty at a time when the economy is faltering and people are dying due to COVID,” she said.