Peru swears in new leader as political turmoil hits nation

Manuel Merino
Manuel Merino (AP)
17:51pm, Tue 10 Nov 2020
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Manuel Merino has been sworn in as the new president of Peru

The businessman and former head of Congress is unknown to most and was recently accused of trying to secure the military’s support for a congressional effort to boot out the nation’s last leader over unproven corruption allegations.

He placed his hand on a Bible and swore to carry out the remainder of the current presidential term, which is set to expire in July of next year.

He then donned the red and white presidential sash while wearing a face mask and stood as the nation’s hymn was played.

“This is a difficult moment for the country,” he said. “Today, the country does not look at the future with hope, but with worry.”

Protests in Peru (AP)

Mr Merino’s swearing in was met with anger, resignation and protests on the streets of Lima a day after Congress voted to oust popular president Martin Vizcarra, who had campaigned against corruption.

Riot police blocked hundreds of protesters against Mr Merino who banged pots and pans as he was sworn into office.

A September Ipsos poll found that 72% of Peruvians polled in urban areas disapproved of the then-chief of Congress. By contrast, 79% said they thought Mr Vizcarra should continue in office.

Analysts warn the country could be thrown into a new period of instability at the same time as it grapples with one of the world’s worst coronavirus outbreaks.

The new president is the country’s third chief of state since 2016; both Mr Vizcarra and his predecessor Pedro Pablo Kuczynski were pushed out by the powerful Congress, where neither managed to secure a majority bloc.

Mr Merino hails from the centre-right Popular Action party and is from the province of Tumbes along the country’s northern border with Ecuador.

Martin Vizcarra (AP)

He served two terms in Congress, the first in 2001, before being elected again this year as part of a new slate of politicians voted into office after Mr Vizcarra dismissed Congress in 2019.

Many hoped that the new Congress and Mr Vizcarra would work together to pass much-needed reforms to curb endemic corruption, but instead the executive and legislative branches engaged in a never-ending tug of war.

Legislators first initiated impeachment proceedings against Mr Vizcarra in September, accusing him of obstructing an investigation into possible favouritism in government contracts.

Shortly before that vote, local media reported that Mr Merino had reached out to high-level military leaders seeking their backing if Mr Vizcarra was voted out.

But instead of pushing forward Mr Vizcarra’s impeachment, many denounced Congress for acting out of line and the removal effort failed. Legislators said they did not want to destabilise the country during the pandemic upheaval.

Peru Political Crisis (AP)

Mr Merino took a back seat in the latest effort to oust Mr Vizcarra, this time on allegations that he had taken more than £480,000 in bribes in exchange for construction contracts while serving as governor of a small province in southern Peru years ago. This time, Congress overwhelming approved Mr Vizcarra’s impeachment.

Though Mr Vizcarra denied any wrongdoing, he quickly agreed to step down.

“Today I am leaving the government palace,” he said on Monday night. “Today I am going home.”

In Peru, legislators can remove a president on the vaguely defined grounds of “permanent moral incapacity” with a two-thirds majority vote.

Many also justified Mr Vizcarra’s ousting by pointing to Peru’s high coronavirus numbers, deadly oxygen shortages and the misuse of rapid antibody tests to diagnose cases even though they cannot identify infection early during an illness.

At least 34,879 people have died among 922,333 infected by the virus in Peru, a nation of 32 million people.

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