• The Star Staff

Peru chooses 3rd president in a week amid street protests

By Julie Turkewitz and Anatoly Kurmanaev

Peru’s legislature on Monday selected the country’s third president in a week, seeking to stanch growing street protests over lawmakers’ decision to remove a popular president from office last week.

Addressing the nation, the country’s newest leader, Francisco Sagasti promised to help the country move away from bitterness and “toward a moment of happiness, of hope.”

But the decision to name Sagasti, an engineer, academic and first-time legislator, as the country’s new president was not expected to immediately quell popular anger at the country’s lawmakers.

Many in Peru see the legislators as venal, corrupt — and responsible for adding political turmoil to the economic and public health crises the country was already facing.

The problem Peruvians confront now is that the same deeply unpopular and inexperienced Congress is charged with moving the country beyond these emergencies.

“God willing, they have finally chosen a better leader,” said Eduardo Carita, 47, walking toward Congress on Monday to join a protest just before the announcement, “but truthfully I have little faith in them.”

Peru’s political tensions erupted into open conflict last week, when Congress relied on an archaic constitutional clause to remove Martín Vizcarra, a well-liked president, for “moral incapacity,” just five months before new elections.

Vizcarra had earned the support of a majority of Peruvians — and the enmity of much of the legislature — by leading efforts to clean up the country’s notoriously corrupt establishment. About half of Congress is under investigation for crimes that include bribery and money laundering.

His unexpected removal from office, and the swift swearing in of a new president, Manuel Merino, the head of Congress, left Peruvians suffering from a severe economic downturn, and from one of the world’s highest coronavirus death rates, in the hands of a leader few knew or trusted.

The population poured its anger into the streets, and Merino resigned after less than six full days in office. At least two people died during protests over the weekend.

Sagasti, who is also unknown to most Peruvians, is among the few politicians who voted against Vizcarra’s ouster last week, which may win him favor in the eyes of many Peruvians.

But he now faces the task of working with Congress, a 130-person unicameral body made up mostly of first-time lawmakers.

Approximately 68 of the 130 legislators are under investigation for activities that include fraud and other types of corruption. One lawmaker is accused of homicide, with a trial set for later this month. Another is accused of running under an assumed name to hide her past legal trouble.

Yet another made headlines this week, shortly after Vizcarra’s ouster, when she accidentally said she would continue to work “in favor of corruption.” (She quickly corrected herself to say that she would work against wrongdoing.)

Peru’s Congress has become a “a Molotov cocktail,” built on unstable ingredients mixed together from years of misguided policy, said Hugo Ñopo, a senior researcher at the Lima-based think tank Grade.

The first ingredient, Ñopo said, was a weak and fragmented party system that encouraged politicians to shift alliances to suit their interests, instead of following ideologies.

The second was the lack of stringent limits on campaign financing, allowing businesses to pour money into candidates and buy influence. And the third was a 2018 referendum, passed by voters, that limited congressional service to a single term.

That last measure was meant to help remove bad actors from politics, said Ñopo. Instead, those now in office “have fewer incentives to create stability or to make good judgments,” he said. “In fact, they now have more incentive to steal more quickly.”

Alexandra Ames, a political analyst in Lima, said the events of the past few days are just one symptom of a larger problem.

“The precariousness of our electoral system and our political parties have brought us to permanent crisis of legitimacy,” she said.

In the last four years, the country has witnessed five attempts to remove the president, one successful attempt to dissolve the congress, and four presidents.

Part of the problem, Ames said, is that Peruvian law allows anyone to run for Congress, with no restrictions based on criminal records. Once elected, lawmakers gain immunity from prosecution, she added.

Now, she said, with just one term in office, lawmakers have all the incentives to spend their limited time pushing through personal agendas instead of governing. “The incentives are very short term and egoistical.”

The Constitutional Court, which is meant to provide the last line of defense in times of political crisis, has been conspicuously silent during the past weeks’ political battles, Ames said.

When asked why, she pointed out that its members are elected by Congress.

What is perhaps most notable about the events of the last few days is that politicians appear to have actually listened to protesters. Many of them were young people who have lost work or have been forced to drop out of school amid the pandemic.

On Monday, just before lawmakers voted for Sagasti, Silvia Miranda, 52, stood on the street by the congressional building, where she changes money for a living.

“The 105 members of Congress who voted in favor of removing the president weren’t thinking about Peruvians,” she said. “Congress has fooled us, the adults. But it won’t be able to fool the young people.”