• The Star Staff

Peru’s president steps down after just 6 days, leaving country adrift

By Anatoly Kurmanaev and Mitra Taj

Facing widespread opposition, Peru’s interim president stepped down on Sunday, his sixth day on the job, plunging a country already facing an economic tailspin and a devastating pandemic into a constitutional crisis.

The interim president, Manuel Merino, had taken power on Tuesday after legislators shocked the nation by voting to remove the popular incumbent, Martín Vizcarra, and then swearing in Merino, who was the head of Congress.

By giving up the presidency, Merino opened up a power vacuum and left Peruvians bracing for the prospect of living under a fifth president in five years, certain only that there is more turbulence to come.

Late Sunday evening, an attempt by Congress to push through a replacement for Merino failed after lawmakers balked at the Marxist credentials of the proposed candidate. That left the country effectively rudderless.

“The resignation of Merino is just the beginning of the end of the political crisis,” said Denisse Rodríguez-Olivari, a Peruvian political scientist at Humboldt University of Berlin. “There are still profound problems in the way the country is governed.”

From his first moments in office, Merino faced opposition from Peruvians who took to the streets in protest and from prominent political and social leaders, many of whom said they did not recognize him as the country’s leader.

On Sunday, after most of his Cabinet resigned and his last political allies abandoned him, the Congress that had put him in power called on him to step down, and Merino took heed.

“I present my irrevocable resignation,” he said in a video address to the nation. “I call for peace and unity of all Peruvians.”

The task of resolving Peru’s problem has fallen to its deeply unpopular and inexperienced Congress.

Elected in January, the lawmakers have proved more interested in pushing through their narrow business interests than governing a nation in crisis, analysts said. About half are under investigation for corruption and other crimes, and many in the country have blamed their political opportunism for the current turmoil.

Merino said he would now focus on ensuring a smooth transition to a new leader.

It was unclear, however, if Peruvians would accept Congress’ pick as their leader and end the daily protests rocking the nation. Whoever takes power now, Rodríguez-Olivari said, will need to pay close attention to the people’s demands to win legitimacy and be able to govern.

Vizcarra, the former president, added to the transition uncertainty Sunday evening by claiming the Congress was too discredited to select Merino’s replacement. He urged the nation’s top court to weigh in on the legality of his removal — a move that he could potentially use to stage a political comeback.

“It can’t be that the Congress that got us into this crisis gives us the solution,” Vizcarra told reporters on Sunday.

Protesters have also demanded that, if Congress is to pick the next president, they must choose from the small group of lawmakers who voted against Vizcarra’s impeachment, and that the nominee have a clean reputation, with no pending investigations or charges.

“The citizens feel like they have triumphed,” said Alexandra Ames, a political analyst in Lima. “But they know that the resignation is not enough, and they are awaiting Congress’ decisions to decide on further protests.”

Vizcarra, the president replaced by Merino, had earned the support of a majority of Peruvians during his two years in power by working to clean up Peru’s notoriously venal political establishment.

To remove him, lawmakers cited unproven accusations of corruption and used an archaic constitutional clause that allows the Congress to declare the president morally incapable to lead the nation. Vizcarra had been due to step down after a presidential election in April, and had promised to face justice after leaving office.

Merino promised to unite the nation and respect democracy, but his administration unraveled before it got started.

His presidency was met with the biggest street demonstrations in the two decades since the downfall of authoritarian President Alberto Fujimori, who is now in jail for human rights abuses and corruption.

The marches in cities and towns across Peru — in the capital, Lima, as well as in the Amazon, the Andes and on the Pacific coast — were driven largely by young people who saw Congress’ action as a ruthless power grab by lawmakers.

“They don’t realize that we’re capable of continuing, week after week, until this is over,” said Alejandra Cavero, a 19-year-old university student who said it was her first time protesting.

The police’s hardfisted response to the protesters — including the heavy use of tear gas and of rubber bullets at close range — only deepened discontent with the new president.

An umbrella group for human rights organizations in Peru said Saturday morning that 41 people had gone missing during the protests and that 112 had been wounded.

Then two protesters were killed during a police crackdown Saturday night, and calls for Merino to resign spread to some of his government’s staunchest supporters. By Sunday morning, most members of his Cabinet had tendered their resignations.

Marches continued in Lima on Sunday, images on local media showed, even after Merino announced his resignation.

“We have a single feeling that’s been multiplied. Why? The greed and hunger of those in power who should be defending our rights,” said Rubén León, a 38-year-old cook. “I’m not a fan of Vizcarra, but his impeachment is an embarrassment and it’s causing a lot of instability.”

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