Peru in political crisis amid mass protests over the president’s accusation

The head of the Peruvian Congress demanded the “immediate resignation” of incumbent President Manuel Merino on Saturday after at least three people were killed during demonstrations in the capital Lima. Protesters called for the reinstatement of popular ex-president Martin Vizcarra, who was indicted on November 9.

At least three people were killed in Lima on Saturday after a group of hooded protesters threw stones and fireworks at police, who responded with tear gas. Peru has repeatedly protested against the right-wing Merino interim government since his centrist predecessor Vizcarra was ousted on Monday.

The protests are “probably the largest in Peru in 20 years,” Gino Costa, a member of parliament and former interior minister, told the Financial Times.

Vizcarra was removed from office by MPs who accused him of corruption and dismissed what they saw as his assault on the Covid-19 pandemic. The ex-president described Merino’s new ministry as “illegal and illegal”.

Nine of the 18 members of Vizcarra’s cabinet resigned after the protesters’ deaths. MEPs would hold a special session on Sunday to discuss the possibility of Merino’s resignation. Luis Valdez – Merino’s successor as Speaker of Parliament after the latter joined the presidency – said he should “evaluate” the idea of ​​resigning, in a statement to Peru’s TV station CANAL N.

‘Merino fraud’

Merino’s whereabouts were unknown on Sunday morning. “I’m calling him and I’m not getting through; I have no idea if he has resigned – I am not a fortune teller, says the right-wing Peruvian Prime Minister Antero Flores Araoz to the country’s RPP radio.

Prosecutors are investigating allegations that Vizcarra took over $ 630,000 in bribes over construction projects when he was governor of the southern province of Moquegua in 2014. He has denied the allegations against him and is not currently charged with any crime.

MEPs invoked a 19th-century constitutional clause that allowed them to remove a president for “moral incapacity.” After taking office, Merino described Vizcarra’s deportation as an “act of absolute responsibility” and called him a “thief”, while saying that the Peruvian presidential election scheduled for April would continue as planned. After those votes, Merino added, he would step down at the end of Vizcarra’s original term in July.

The Organization of American States, an intergovernmental body, has not recognized Merino’s interim government and issued a statement expressing its “concern” the day Vizcarra was removed from power.

Protesters claim his takeover was tantamount to a parliamentary coup – with Saturday’s protesters reading placards reading “Merino fraudsters” and “Merino, you are not my president”. One protester, student Yessenia Medina, told the Associated Press earlier this week: “I think they took him away from their own personal interests rather than for the good of the people.”

Viscarra’s anti-corruption agenda

Surveys suggest Vizcarra’s allegations were unpopular with a majority of Peruvians, not just those who took to the streets: An Ipsos poll in September, during an initial attempt by Parliament to remove Viscarra due to allegations of influence, found that 79 percent thought he should end his first term.

Vizcarra took over in 2018 with an anti-corruption agenda, two years after he was elected vice president of Pedro Pablo Kuczynski, a former World Bank and IMF official. Vizcarra joined the presidency when Kuczynski resigned amid allegations of corruption with Odebrecht, a scandal-ridden Brazilian construction company.

Nobel Prize-winning novelist Mario Vargas Llosa, seen on the right of the political spectrum, praised Vizcarra after joining the presidency, saying his “references are pretty good” and that Vizcarra had so far “acted within the law”.

At the heart of Vizcarra’s agenda was a set of proposals aimed at fighting corruption, which were voted on in a referendum in December 2018: banning private funding for political campaigns, preventing MEPs from participating in more than one term and creating a upper house . All but the latest proposal were accepted.

Vargas Llosa predicted that if Vizcarra’s popularity increased significantly, “the Fujimorists in Congress will probably make life difficult for him.” This refers to supporters of Alberto Fujimori, the right-wing Peruvian president from 1990 to 2000. Fujimori gained popularity for increasing Peru’s economic growth and overthrowing the uprisings of the Shining Path and MRTA – two Marxist guerrilla groups whose brutal revolutionary campaigns destabilized Peru throughout the 1980s.

But Fujimori was sentenced to a 25-year sentence in 2009 for leading death groups in these counter-insurgency campaigns. That same year, he was convicted of paying the head of Peru’s intelligence service to bribe and put under surveillance journalists, businessmen and political opponents.

Corruption, “the bread and butter of Peruvian politics”

Keiko Fujimori, daughter of Alberto Fujimori, is still the leader of the Fujimori Party’s Popular Front. She has been in and out of the detention center since her arrest in 2018 for money laundering in relation to the Odebrecht scandal.

In September 2019, Vizcarra dissolved parliament on the grounds that the Fujimorist majority had blocked his anti-corruption reforms – a constitutionally dubious move. The team election in January thereafter followed Fujimorist’s voting share to 7 percent – compared to 36 percent in 2016.

Yet many new MPs from a number of centrist parties who won were equally hostile to Vizcarra.

“Fujimorists are declining very much; a broken flush at this stage, says Colin Harding, editor of Latinform, a special publication on Latin America. “They are not in a position to swing anything – rather it was a coalition of small parties that got rid of Vizcarra.”

“His anti-corruption agenda was probably a big factor in that,” Harding continued. “Any attempt to eradicate corruption in Peru is a risky process because it is the bread and butter of Peruvian politics – and Vizcarra was vulnerable because he had no party base, so there was nothing to protect him when Congress turned against him.”

The situation looks foggy ahead of the presidential race in April and assumes that it will continue as planned. Vizcarra can not stand due to time constraints – although he can drive again in a later election.

At the same time, “you can not see much of a future for Merino because he is seen as very representative of the old politics,” Harding said. “The great political force right now is the street.”

Anyone who tries to lead Peru out of their political crisis, they must also fight a Covid-19 crisis. Peru has the world’s highest mortality rate per coronavirus per capita. It is also experiencing one of the worst economic shocks in hard-hit Latin America. The IMF estimates that Peru’s GDP will have fallen by 14 percent by the end of 2020.

It has been difficult to distribute financial aid, as 70 percent of Peruvians work in the informal economy and 60 percent do not have a bank account. Vizcarra set a goal to ensure that all Peruvian adults have an account by 2021. But the proportion of people with an account increased from 38 percent before the pandemic to just 40 percent in August.

Vizcarra came under fire from its parliamentary opponents over these health and economic crises. But he was quick to impose a lockdown at the start of the pandemic – on March 15, just nine days after Peru’s first confirmed fall, and facing many European countries where the virus was already on the rise.

Given the profound problems that Covid-19 revealed in Peru, Harding said it would be difficult to argue that Vizcarra could have done much better: “He followed the advice and locked himself in quickly – but of course as soon as you start to relax. rules, the virus comes back with a vortex. And Peru has a rather inefficient public health system; hospitals are poorly equipped and they are not enough. Vizscarra probably did the best he could with what he had. ”