Peru's speaker of congress takes over presidency

Lima (AFP) –


Speaker of Congress Manuel Merino assumed office Tuesday as Peru's third president in four years, amid street protests and market jitters after the impeachment of Martin Vizcarra over corruption allegations.

Police clashed with demonstrators in the streets outside the Congress building in Lima as the little-known Merino was sworn in.

Clashes also occurred in the cities of Arequipa and Cusco, local media reported.

Vizcarra was removed in an impeachment vote late Monday, but said he was leaving with his head "held high" despite allegations of bribe-taking that date from when he was a regional governor. He denied any wrongdoing.

Merino, 59, takes power for the remainder of Vizcarra's original term through July 2021, and immediately pledged to respect the electoral timetable.

Peru is set to hold general and presidential elections in April 2021.

- Call for unity -

After months of internal jousting between the presidency and his opponents in Congress, Merino used his first speech as president to call for national unity and promised he would vacate the presidency at the end of Vizcarra's term, on July 28 of next year.

Constitutionally, succession fell to Merino because Peru has not replaced vice-president Mercedes Araoz, who resigned a year ago in the wake of a separate political crisis.

Party leaders seemed divided Tuesday over the wisdom of removing Vizcarra in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic and a crippling economic recession, with the financial markets nervous about whether the new government will maintain the existing economic policy framework.

A former Lima mayor and likely presidential candidate, George Forsythe, described Vizcarra's dismissal as "a coup d'etat in disguise".

Former leftist presidential candidate Veronika Mendoza said: "What happened in Congress is shameful and outrageous" while Lima's Catholic archbishop, Carlos Castilo, said Congress lacked "a sense of proportion" in dismissing the president.

Vizcarra had broad popular support since succeeding Pedro Pablo Kuczynski, the former Wall Street banker who was forced to resign under threat of impeachment over corruption allegations in 2018.

Opinion polls gave Vizcarra an approval rating of 54 percent, with 78 percent of respondents believing that investigation into his alleged corruption should wait until after his term ended.

Merino criticised his predecessor's handling of the pandemic, saying Peru was "the country that has handled Covid-19 the worst."

The South American country has the world's highest per capita death rate from the disease, which has seen nearly 35,000 deaths and more than 920,000 cases.

- Third president since 2016 -

Merino is Peru's third president since 2016, reflecting the institutional fragility which has characterized the South American country since independence from Spain in 1821.

A lawmaker for the northern region of Tumbes on the border with Ecuador, Merino is a member of the center-right Accion Popular party founded by two-term president Fernando Belaunde, who was last in power in 1985.

Vizcarra ruled out taking legal action to try to overturn the impeachment.

"I leave the government palace as I entered two years, eight months ago: with my head held high," he said, surrounded by his ministers on the patio of the government house, adding he would leave immediately for his private home.

"I'm leaving with a clear conscience and with my duty fulfilled," said Vizcarra, who enjoyed record levels of popularity in his 32 months in office.

Analysts believe Vizcarra's abrupt departure will complicate the path to elections.

"Peru comes out weaker institutionally. Merino will be a weak president, that is the scenario in the context of general elections against the backdrop of a pandemic," political analyst Augusto Alvarez Rodrich told AFP.