LIMA – People protested on the streets of the capital city of Lima on Tuesday as congressional speaker Manuel Merino was sworn in as Peru’s third president in four years following the controversial ouster of Martin Vizcarra.
Merino, a member of the center-right Popular Action party, vowed that the country’s next general election will take place as planned on April 11, 2021, and to ensure that electoral authorities have all the resources they need for the process.
Regarding Peru’s biggest crisis aside from the political upheaval, he said that while seeking to maintain continuity in the fight against COVID-19, the new government will “correct the mistakes” that have seen the Andean nation lead the world in per capita deaths from coronavirus.
The 59-year-old Merino said his administration will also maintain efforts to address the economic damage done by the pandemic.
He said he planned to assemble a “Cabinet of consensus and national unity” comprising non-partisan professionals.
Pleading for an end to conflict between Congress and the executive branch, Merino likewise appealed for “calm and tranquility” amid growing protests over legislators’ vote to remove Vizcarra for “permanent moral incapacity.”
The votes to impeach Vizcarra “were not bought,” he said, insisting that due process was followed.
“There is nothing to celebrate, it is a very difficult moment for the country,” Merino said.
Lawmakers from the Morado party, the only faction in Congress to oppose the removal of Vizcarra as a bloc, boycotted Tuesday’s ceremony as an “illegitimate taking of power.”
Hundreds gathered outside Congress to voice rejection of Merino’s elevation to the presidency and similar protests took place in other Peruvian cities.
Two months after an earlier attempt to impeach Vizcarra fizzled out, 105 of 130 members voted Monday night to oust him based on accusations of corruption during his 2011-2014 tenure as governor of the Moquegua region.
The impeachment bid in September collapsed when several parties withdrew their support after Vizcarra revealed that Merino had approached the military brass to secure their backing for a move against the president.
Vizcarra took office in March 2018 after his predecessor resigned to avoid being impeached. Pedro Pablo Kuczynski was forced out on suspicion he received some of the $30 million in bribes Brazilian construction giant Odebrecht paid to officials to obtain lucrative public works contracts.
Despite his having no party behind him, Vizcarra has had some success in reforming Peru’s judiciary and forcing an early congressional election and enjoys an approval rating of around 50 percent.
Merino’s administration “does not enjoy legitimacy because it has not been elected by the citizens, that’s the way it is,” Adriana Urrutia, president of the civic organization Transparencia, told EFE on Tuesday.
She pointed out that the new president “only obtained 5,000 votes” in his run for Congress.
“The (presidential) vacancy comes solely because the arithmetic exists,” political scientist Fernando Tuesta said. “They only had to amass votes, which come from the accusations of alleged acts of corruption.”
“But in the constitution, the (president) can be removed only for specific and objective causes. Moral incapacity is impossible to prove objectively,” he said.
Media outlets, along with 2021 presidential hopefuls George Forsyth and Julio Guzman, have suggested the removal of Vizcarra is tantamount to a coup.
Peru’s Constitutional Tribunal is currently reviewing the validity of “moral incapacity” as a reason to impeach a president. The mechanism was created in the 19th century to address a situation in which the head of state is mentally impaired.
For Tuesta, a professor at the Pontifical Catholic University of Peru, the existence of the “moral incapacity” option leaves a politically weak president at the mercy of legislators, “who are moreover irresponsible and can do things without control, as they don’t have incentives of permanence” due to term limits.
The promoters of impeachment maintain that there was no quid pro quo involved in assembling a congressional super-majority to remove the president.
But it has not escaped attention that the leaders of two parties behind the impeachment are the owners of private universities that have clashed with government regulators over the stricter accreditation standards enacted under Vizcarra.
Any move by the Merino administration to weaken those standards would raise questions.
“They (lawmakers) have personal interests in play,” Urrutia said. “Some will want some kind of immunity, others have economic interests, but each party will now have to take responsibility for their actions and accept consequences for their acts.”
Peru’s constitutional system of checks and balances is broken, according to Urrutia.
“Now in Peru the legislature controls two of three branches of government,” she said.