Peru’s Manuel Merino Is Sworn In as President
Manuel Merino, the little-known head of Peru’s Congress, was sworn in as the country’s new president Tuesday, intensifying political turmoil following the legislature’s surprise move a day earlier to oust President Martín Vizcarra.
The swearing-in of the provincial politician followed a fast-moving impeachment of the popular Mr. Vizcarra on Monday that many Peruvians saw as a crass effort by lawmakers to protect their personal interests and shield themselves from corruption investigations. About half of the 130 members of Congress are facing criminal investigations on matters including graft and homicide.
Protesters clashed with riot police in central Lima and other cities on Tuesday, carrying flags and signs saying: “Merino isn’t my president.”
Peru’s influential daily newspaper, La Republica, called the congressional move a coup d’état, and many residents and political analysts agreed. The crisis highlights weaknesses in Peru’s political system, which allows the unicameral Congress to quickly oust a president by using an ambiguous constitutional clause that was introduced in the 19th century.
Congress voted overwhelmingly to oust Mr. Vizcarra on Monday by declaring him morally unfit to be president, citing bribery accusations and his handling of the coronavirus pandemic.
Mr. Merino’s rise to power has shocked Peruvians and rattled investors, as the sol currency depreciated Tuesday to its lowest rate in almost two decades and shares on the Lima Stock Exchange tumbled.
Mr. Merino, an agriculture businessman and member of the centrist Acción Popular party, became Peru’s third president in less than four years. He takes over amid Peru’s worst economic contraction in over a century and a devastating health crisis caused by a pandemic that has killed more than 34,000 people here, giving the country the world’s highest per capita mortality rate.
In a speech before Congress, Mr. Merino called for unity and said his government would focus on tackling the pandemic-induced health and economic crises. He also looked to play down fears he could postpone April’s presidential election to remain in power, saying the vote will go ahead as scheduled.
“There are bad intentions to try to divide the country, and we aren’t going to allow it,” said Mr. Merino, 59 years old, who represented the small northern state of Tumbes as a lawmaker.
Peru’s economy is expected to contract 14% this year, with the International Monetary Fund projecting 7.3% growth in 2021.
Economists expect more volatility in the coming months, as business groups fear the political upheaval could affect an economic recovery that is dependent on a massive stimulus package.
“Everything could just come to a standstill,” said Alfredo Thorne, a former Peruvian finance minister. “The economy is in intensive care, the only thing growing is government spending.”
He said Mr. Merino’s ability to raise billions of dollars in debt next year in international markets to cover a large fiscal deficit is in doubt amid investor concerns about Peru’s fragile political future.
“This is going to affect, probably on a permanent basis, the credibility of the country,” said Alonso Segura, a former finance minister who is now at Lima’s Catholic University. “The next few months are going to be pretty critical for the future of Peru.”
Polls showed nearly 80% of Peruvians wanted Mr. Vizcarra to finish his term in July and then face a graft investigation over accusations he received a bribe from construction companies while a governor of a southern state from 2011 to 2014.
Political analysts said Congress’s real motivation to oust Mr. Vizcarra was driven by hopes of undermining anticorruption probes and protecting their personal interests.
“They banded together because they have one interest, taking down the anticorruption efforts,” said Jo-Marie Burt, a Peru expert at the Washington Office on Latin America, a think tank. “The country is now in the hands of a bunch of individuals who are really motivated by protecting their own personal and private interests.”
Lawmakers have been particularly interested in government efforts to increase oversight of for-profit universities accused of churning out diplomas and providing poor education. One popular college in Lima that was shut down last year is owned by the founder of the Podemos Peru party, which drove the impeachment. The head of another party, Alliance for Progress, owns several private universities.
A court recently ordered the detention of the leader of Podemos Peru, José Luna, over corruption accusations, which he denies. Prosecutors accused him of being a member of a criminal group called “The Gangsters of Politics.” His son, a current Congressman also called José Luna, said prosecutors acted as the political arm of Mr. Vizcarra’s government.
Mr. Vizcarra’s government regularly clashed with Congress since taking office in 2018 following the resignation of President Pedro Pablo Kuczynski. Mr. Vizcarra disbanded the legislature in 2019 and called a new election, accusing lawmakers of blocking his political overhauls, which include prohibiting lawmakers from re-election and preventing people under criminal investigation from running for public office.
Congress tried to impeach Mr. Vizcarra in September, but failed after it was disclosed that Mr. Merino had contacted military commanders to try to win over their support for the motion.
During the pandemic, the government and Congress also battled over economic policy, as hundreds of thousands of people lost their jobs and were driven back into poverty.
Congress passed legislation to halt the collection of toll fees to facilitate transportation of goods across the country, but authorities said it was unconstitutional.
Lawmakers also presented legislation to allow workers to withdraw funds from the private and public pension systems, which economists said could cause long-term damage to public finances and Peru’s financial system.
Mr. Merino and his allies in Congress will have leeway to pass their measures without opposition from the executive now that Mr. Vizcarra is out, analysts said.