Peru’s new president accused of coup after ousting of predecessor

The head of the Peruvian Congress, Manuel Merino, after being sworn in as interim president in Lima on Tuesday. Photograph: Luka Gonzales/AFP/Getty Images

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Hundreds protested the swearing in of Manuel Merino, a key figure in orchestrating Martín Vizcarra’s impeachment

By Dan Collyns

The head of Peru’s Congress has been sworn as president after his predecessor was controversially ousted in a congressional vote late on Monday, prompting accusations of a coup.

The removal of the popular president Martín Vizcarra comes as Peru is reeling from one of the world’s worst coronavirus outbreaks, which has left its economy in recession and caused mass unemployment.

After a night of furious protests and clashes with police, hundreds of demonstrators gathered again on Tuesday morning in downtown Lima to protest against the swearing-in of Manuel Merino, widely viewed as a key figure in orchestrating Vizcarra’s impeachment. A previous attempt in September failed to get enough votes.

Riot police with shields and wielding batons beat back demonstrators marching on the Congress building who waved Peruvian flags and placards reading “Merino is not my president”. In total 105 out of Peru’s 130 lawmakers voted to remove Vizcarra on Monday. Vizcarra has previously said that no fewer than 68 of the members of congress seeking his impeachment were themselves subject to ongoing legal processes.

Many public figures and legal experts have said described Vizcarra’s ousting – on the grounds of “permanent moral incapacity” – as illegitimate. George Forsyth, the leading presidential candidate, tweeted it was a “coup in disguise”. Leftwing presidential candidate Veronika Mendoza called for Peruvians to take to the streets to defend democracy.

Analysts concurred that the removal was orchestrated by opposition leaders who bitterly opposed the president’s anti-graft reforms and his overhaul of higher education which affected their business interests.

“The removal of President Martín Vizcarra is a coup d’etat,” said Pedro Cateriano, a former prime minister and constitutional lawyer.

“Without any doubt, the Congress has violated the constitutional order,” he said, adding: “The constitution does not allow a sitting president to be accused or politically penalized.”

“A Peruvian president can be investigated and accused when he finishes his mandate, just as it happened with [former presidents] [Alejandro] Toledo, [Alan] García, [Ollanta] Humala and PPK [Pedro Pablo Kuczynski].”

Vizcarra, who left the presidential palace on Monday night, was applauded by neighbours as he arrived at his home in a middle-class district of Lima.

The leader, who had long campaigned against corruption at the highest levels of government, said he was leaving office with a “clear conscience”.

Flanked by his ministers, Vizcarra said he hoped to find out what were the “real motives” behind his impeachment.

“Were they decisions made in favour of … Peru and Peruvians or were they decisions made only for personal and group interests?” he asked.

Merino takes office under a cloud of illegitimacy and a dearth of public support while most polls show Vizcarra still has more than 50% approval.

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