LIMA – The government of Peru underwent on Monday a day of total upheaval that saw President Martin Vizcarra dissolve the same opposition-controlled congress that would shortly after suspend him for a year, while the Andean nation’s prime minister stepped down at the same time as thousands took to the streets to show their support for the executive.
It all started when Vizcarra announced he was dissolving the congress by invoking the president’s constitutional power to do so after the body defied his warnings and elected a controversial new member of the constitutional court.
“I have decided to dissolve congress and call congressional elections. This is a constitutional act,” Vizcarra said in a televised message.
The president said his order was “within the powers described” in the nation’s constitution and that he sought to “put an end to this stage of political gridlock that has prevented Peru from growing at the best pace of its capabilities.”
The government later announced that the new elections were scheduled for Jan. 26 of next year in an extraordinary supreme decree published in its state newspaper, El Peruano.
But a faction of rebel lawmakers cried “Dictator!” after Vizcarra’s announcement and immediately voted to temporarily suspend him for 12 months, naming Vice President Mercedes Araoz as the country’s acting chief executive.
The government holds that this presidential suspension was void as congress had already ceased to be in session at the exact moment Vizcarra signed his order dissolving the chamber.
Araoz, however, accepted the promotion and said she was temporarily assuming presidential functions after Vizcarra “incurred in a grave constitutional infraction” by dissolving the congress.
“It is my duty as a citizen, as a woman, as a mother and as vice president to assume this mandate,” she said in a speech addressing the pro-Fujimori lawmakers who had voted for her to replace Vizcarra.
“Peruvians are disgusted by the ongoing political confrontation and polarization and the climate of disrepute surrounding the entire political class,” Araoz added.
“The easiest thing would have been for him to resign,” she said of Vizcarra, though Araoz acknowledged her opinion was unpopular and that people had mobilized in support of the president.
Legal experts, on the other hand, widely view this procedure to replace Vizcarra as unconstitutional, as the document requires a proper impeachment process and a conviction in the political trial in order to remove a sitting president from office.
To justify his move, Vizcarra said Peru’s constitution allows presidents to dissolve congress and call new elections if congressmembers pass two votes of no-confidence in a government.
His position is supported by an ample majority of citizens, according to several polls and as evinced by the massive demonstrations backing the president’s stance that filled the streets of Lima on Monday following Vizcarra’s announcement.
Earlier on Monday, the congress – dominated by the conservative Popular Force party led by jailed former presidential candidate Keiko Fujimori – voted that it had no confidence in the government, which prompted Prime Minister Salvador del Solar to step down.
Vizcarra then replaced him with Justice Minister Vicente Zevallos.
The lawmakers, meanwhile, rushed through a vote to appoint Gonzalo Ortiz de Zevallos to the constitutional court.
Ortiz de Zevallos’ nomination was controversial because he is the first cousin of the chamber’s speaker, Pedro Olaechea, who pressed on with the vote despite heavy protest by liberal and left-wing lawmakers. The confirmation passed with the required 87 votes.
However, leftist lawmaker Maria Elena Foronda later claimed that she had been supplanted and her vote was falsely tallied as favorable. She said she would file a complaint with the prosecutor’s office.
This rushed court appointment despite all the objections is seen by Vizcarra’s camp as a second no-confidence vote.
Vizcarra rose to power last year following President Pedro Pablo Kuczynski’s resignation over the Odebrecht graft scandal. He acceded to the office because he was serving as Kuczynski’s vice president at the time. The latter has been held in pre-trial detention since April.
Since taking office, Vizcarra has emerged as an unlikely anti-graft champion, embarking on a crusade against widespread public corruption that led him to push several institutional reforms.
These attempts at reform put him at odds with the congress, which boycotted most bills targeting corrupt practices.
At the same time, the Popular Force lawmakers launched a fast-track process to renew the justices on the constitutional court with little transparency.
The no-confidence vote in the government held on Monday had been requested by Vizcarra and Del Solar as a way of blocking this legislative maneuver.
Vizcarra had already proposed early elections – both presidential and congressional – in July in order to break the political gridlock that had formed after the Popular Force won a majority along with its allies in the 2016 general elections. The right-wing opposition, however, dismissed the president’s proposal and shelved the vote.
After the crisis erupted, the country’s top military officers were called to the president’s official residence, where they offered him their backing.
The head of the armed forces’ joint chiefs of staff, as well as the top commanders of the army, navy, air force and national police all reaffirmed their loyalty to the constitution and Vizcarra’s authority as commander-in-chief.
They posed for a picture with the beleaguered president that was shared on Twitter by his office.
Thousands of Peruvians streamed to surround the Legislative Palace – where the congress is located – to celebrate the body’s dissolution and the announcement of new elections while chanting slogans such as “Yes, We Could” and “Peru, I Love You, That’s Why I’m Defending You.”
“I hope this is the beginning of a more decent government for our country,” said 60-year-old Miguel Marquez, who explained he was attending the noisy rally because he was “excited about the changes that are about to come.”
“Vizcarra has listened to the voice of the people,” Joel Castro, another 40-year-old demonstrator, told EFE.
The crowds were blocked from accessing the congressional premises by national police officers clad in riot gear.
In her speech after swearing her oath of office, Araoz expressed her respect for the people supporting Vizcarra on the streets, though she urged them to start “a new era of democratic coexistence.”