Peru’s interim president resigned on Sunday as the nation plunged into the worst constitutional crisis in two decades after mass protests erupted when Congress ousted the country’s popular leader. In a brief televised address, Manuel Merino said Congress acted within the law when he was sworn in as head of state on Tuesday, despite protesters’ claims that lawmakers staged a parliamentary coup.
“I, like everyone, want the best for our country,” he said.
The politician agreed to step down after a night of riots in which two young protesters were killed and half of his cabinet resigned. Peruvians welcomed the decision, waving their nation̵
Congress has scheduled an extraordinary session Sunday afternoon to elect a new president. Meanwhile, former President Martin Viscara – whose removal caused the turmoil – called on the country’s highest court to intervene.
“The institution that put us in this political crisis, which has paralyzed Peru for death for five days, cannot give us a solution by choosing the person it judges best,” Viscara said.
Peru has a lot at stake: The country is terrified of one of the deadliest in the worldand political analysts say the constitutional crisis has jeopardized the country’s democracy.
“I think this is the most serious democratic and human rights crisis we’ve seen since Fujimori,” said analyst Alonso Gurmendi Dunkelberg, referring to the tumultuous rule of the strong man Alberto Fujimori from 1990 to 2000.
Congress ousted Viscara with a 19th-century clause that allowed the powerful legislature to remove a president for “permanent moral incompetence.” Lawmakers accused Viscara of taking bribes for more than $ 630,000 in exchange for two construction contracts while he was governor of a small province years ago.
Prosecutors are investigating the allegations, but no charges have been filed against Viscara. He vehemently denied the allegations.
Merino, a former head of Congress, intervened as interim president, but his six-day rule was marred by ongoing protests. The little-known politician and rice grower promised to keep the planned vote for a new president in April. This did not stop the Peruvians, who did not want to accept it.
Half of those in Congress are under investigation for alleged crimes, including money laundering and murder. Polls show that Viscara is most wanted to fulfill the rest of her presidential term, which is due to expire in July. As Peruvians took to the streets, police responded with batons, rubber bullets and tear gas.
A network of human rights groups said 112 people were injured during Saturday’s protests, and the whereabouts of 41 others are unknown. Health officials say the dead included 22-year-old Jack Pintado, who was shot 11 times, including in the head, and Jordan Sotelo, 24, who was hit four times in the chest near his heart.
“Two young people were absurdly, stupidly, unfairly sacrificed by the police,” Peruvian writer and Nobel laureate Mario Vargas Llosa said in a video shared on Twitter. “This repression – which is against all of Peru – must stop.”
The protests that have rocked Peru are unlike any seen in recent years, fueled mainly by young people who are usually apathetic to the country’s notoriously volatile policies. Protesters are upset in Congress that they are organizing what they consider to be an illegal seizure of power, as well as who Merino has chosen to lead the nascent government.
Its prime minister, Antero Flores-Araoz, was a former defense minister who resigned in 2009 after police clashes with local protesters in the Amazon left 34 dead. Alberto Vergara, a political analyst at the University of the Pacific in Peru, said many saw the new cabinet as “old, bitter, old, closed to the world”.
In remarks ahead of Saturday’s turmoil, Merino denied protests against him, telling a local radio station that the young people were demonstrating against unemployment and could not complete their training because of the pandemic. For many, this has shown how untouched Congress is.
“We want people’s voices heard,” protester Fernando Ramirez said as he slammed a spoon into a protest pot.
According to the National Association of Journalists, there were 35 attacks on media representatives between Monday and Thursday, almost all by police officers. Human rights groups have also documented excessive force against protesters, the use of tear gas near homes and hospitals, and the detention of protesters.
“We are documenting cases of police brutality in central Lima,” Jose Miguel Vivanko, the American director of Human Rights Watch, wrote on Twitter on Saturday. “Everything shows that repression against peaceful protesters is intensifying.”
If Congress continues to elect a new leader, they may have relatively few options to reassure protesters. The overwhelming majority – 105 out of 130 – voted in favor of removing Viscara. They are widely expected to choose from those who opposed the former president’s surprise to rush the removal.
The timing of the crisis could not be worse: Peru has the highest death rate of COVID-19 per capita and has seen one of the worst economic contractions in Latin America. The International Monetary Fund forecasts a 14% drop in GDP this year.
In retiring, Merino said he had fulfilled his responsibility with “humility and honor” and that it was a challenge he “accepted and did not seek.” He accused unnamed actors of trying to “confuse the country”, saying Congress wanted to oust Viscara to delay the upcoming presidential vote.
He also hit protesters, saying there were groups of young people “interested in causing chaos and violence”.
“I call for peace and unity for all Peruvians,” he said. “Peru deserves to move on.”