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, took power on Tuesday after legislators shocked the nation by voting to remove the popular incumbent, Martín Vizcarra, and then swearing in Mr. Merino, who was the head of Congress.
From his first moments in office, Mr. 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 Mr. Merino took heed.
“I present my irrevocable resignation,” he in a video address to the nation. “I call for peace and unity of all Peruvians.”
Mr. Merino’s decision opened up a vacuum of power 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.
“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.”
The task of resolving Peru’s problem has fallen to its deeply unpopular and inexperienced Congress.
Elected in January, the lawmakers have proven more interested in pushing through their narrow business interests than governing a nation in crisis, analysts said. About half of them are under investigation for corruption and other crimes, and many in the country have blamed their political opportunism for the current turmoil.
Mr. Merino said he would now focus on ensuring a smooth transition to a new leader, and the Congress announced that it would appoint a new president from among the lawmakers later Sunday.
It was unclear, however, if Peruvians would accept Mr. Merino’s successor as their leader and end the daily protests rocking the nation. Whoever takes power now, Ms. Rodríguez-Olivari said, will need to pay close attention to the people’s demands to win legitimacy and be able to govern.
Mr. Vizcarra, the president replaced by Mr. 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. Mr. Vizcarra had been due to step down after a presidential election in April, and had promised to face justice after leaving office.
Mr. 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 the 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 Mr. 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 Mr. 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.”
Rosa Chávez Yacila contributed reporting from Lima, Peru.