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Peru’s Merino Stokes Anger, Fear in a Traumatized Country

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A devastating pandemic, the deepest economic crisis on record, and now, the fourth president in five years.

Exhausted by this year’s turmoil, Peruvians woke up Tuesday to yet another shock. This time, it was one of their leaders’ making: The country’s deeply disliked Congress had voted Monday night to impeach Martín Vizcarra, a popular, if flawed, president, for “moral incapacity,” just five months before new elections.

By Tuesday morning, just thirteen hours later, Congress had sworn in a new president — Manuel Merino, the little-known rice farmer who had been head of Congress.

And the population was left reeling, astonished and furious at a political system many saw as willing to risk instability in pursuit of petty political disputes instead of focusing on the country’s pressing problems.

“All of us Peruvians are disappointed in the people who govern us,” said Andrés Cordero, an unemployed electrician. “They’ve been promising change for a long time and it always ends the same way.”

The spreading national malaise marks a stark turnaround from Peru’s fortunes before the pandemic, when the country posted Latin America’s highest economic growth rates and fell behind Mr. Vizcarra’s ambitious attempts to stamp out deep-seated corruption.

Now, Mr. Vizcarra has been accused of the same crimes he pledged to combat, becoming Peru’s sixth president in a row to be investigated for corruption, after leaked witness testimonies appeared to show him accepting bribes during his time as a provincial governor.

Mr. Vizcarra came to power after the previous president, Pedro Pablo Kuczynski, resigned in one of several corruption scandals that have ensnared politicians, businessmen, judges and prosecutors in recent years. As Mr. Kuczynski’s vice-president, Mr. Vizcarra stepped into the office.

While polls show that vast majority of Peruvians want Mr. Vizcarra to face justice, his swift removal by Congress, before the accusations were proven, has provoked even greater public outrage.

Hundreds of protesters took to the streets in capital, Lima, on Tuesday to denounce what they called a congressional “coup,” accusing lawmakers of perverting justice for personal benefit in a moment of grave national crisis. They clashed with riot police on outside Congress, who dispersed them with tear gas and rubber pellets.

Protests and clashes also erupted in several other cities, according to local media.

“This has been the drop that overflowed the glass of political destabilization,” said Elsa Soldevilla, a 27-year-old student who joined the protest. “If Vizcarra has a crime to pay, let him do it in courts. The Congress doesn’t need to exploit this.”

The popular anger over Mr. Vizcarra’s ouster quickly spread to Peru’s other political institutions, undermining the last vestiges of legitimacy of a system that many citizens consider beyond repair. Some at the protests have blamed the country’s top court, which had declined to weigh in on the previous attempt by the Congress to remove Mr. Vizcarra — in September, less than two months ago — for an unrelated and also still unproven offense.

The court is still evaluating Mr. Vizcarra’s request for clarification on the use of the country’s archaic impeachment clause, which allows lawmakers to remove presidents who they consider morally or mentally unfit for office on grounds of “permanent moral incapacity.” The request was filed in September.

The criticism of Mr. Vizcarra’s ouster was amplified by its timing. The former president had eight months left in office and had said he would not seek re-election in the general elections scheduled for April.

He had also promised to face the prosecutors to defend himself against corruption charges after leaving power. In his defense speech in Congress shortly before being impeached, he had accused his opponents of hypocrisy, pointing out that 68 of the country’s 130 congressmen were under investigation for crimes such as corruption or money laundering themselves.

Under Peru’s law, lawmakers enjoy parliamentary immunity, a benefit that Mr. Vizcarra had unsuccessfully attempted to remove during his campaign to overhaul the country’s governance.

Mr. Vizcarra’s political undoing has been partly of his own doing. By limiting the lawmakers’ time in office to one term in an effort to ostensibly limit corruption, Mr. Vizcarra has removed the incentive for responsible and experienced politicians to seek careers in Congress, said Diego Moya-Ocampos, a political risk analyst at the consultancy IHS Markit, in London.

The result has been a raucous, fractious legislature filled with rookie, little-known politicians from a dozen parties, including the political wing of a messianic religious group and supporters of a jailed former military officer who advocate firing squads for corrupt officials.

Mr. Merino, the new president, promised to focus on the pandemic and honor the scheduled Apr. 11 election date.

“Today the population looks at us with expectation but also with concern,” he said in his acceptance speech Tuesday. “Our commitment is to carry out a democratic transition.”

But the impeachment left many in Peru dispirited, worried that the country is headed for greater political instability just as it tries to recover from one of the world’s worst coronavirus outbreaks, and reopen its battered economy. Peru’s gross domestic product is set to contract 14 percent this year, according to the International Monetary Fund — the largest decline since the nation began collecting economic statistics in 1951.

David Rivera, a Peruvian political analyst, said the widespread opposition to Mr. Vizcarra’s impeachment would likely make it hard for Mr. Merino to find qualified professionals to fill key positions in an interim government.

“What serious technocrat or politician is going to want to be a minister with Merino?” he said. “I don’t even want to imagine what this administration is going to be like.”

Lacking legitimacy and popular support, Mr. Merino may resort to populist measures to govern, such as lowering sales taxes and allowing citizens to withdraw money from their private insurance schemes, said analysts.

An even larger risk is that the new government will use its short time in office to pass laws benefiting their members’ business interests, said Martín Tanaka, a political scientist at the Pontifical Catholic University of Peru, in Lima.

“The big problem is that in eight months, a lot of damage can be done,” said Mr. Tanaka.

Mirelis Morales contributed reporting from Lima, Peru, and Isayen Herrera contributed reporting from Caracas, Venezuela.

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