LIMA, Peru (AP) — Peru swore into office a new president Tuesday who is unknown to most and was recently accused of trying to secure the military's support for a congressional effort to boot the nation's last leader out over unproven corruption allegations.
Businessman and former head of Congress Manuel Merino 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."
Merino's swearing in was met with anger, resignation and protests on the streets of Peru's capital a day after Congress voted to oust popular President Martín Vizcarra, who had campaigned against corruption. Peruvians widely distrust legislators and decried Vizcarra's removal as an overt power grab.
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.
"It's a coup d'état," taxi driver Paul Mendoza said. "Now we're going to have inflation, a recession, and we won't be able to get ahead because of the pandemic."
The new president is the country's third chief of state since 2016; both Vizcarra and his predecessor, Pedro Pablo Kuczynski, were pushed out by the powerful Congress, where neither managed to secure a majority bloc.
Merino hails from the center-right Popular Action party and is from the province of Tumbes along the country's northern border with Ecuador. He served two terms in Congress, the first in 2001, before being elected again this year as part of a new slate of lawmakers voted into office after Vizcarra dismissed Congress in 2019.
Many hoped that the new Congress and 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 Vizcarra in September, accusing him of obstructing an investigation into possible favoritism in government contracts. Shortly before that vote, local media reported that Merino had reached out to high-level military leaders seeking their backing if Vizcarra was voted out.
The move backfired.
Instead of pushing forward Vizcarra's impeachment, many denounced Congress for acting out of line and the removal effort failed. Lawmakers said they didn't want to destabilize the country during the pandemic upheaval.
Merino took a back seat in the latest effort to oust Vizcarra, this time on allegations that he'd taken more than $630,000 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 Vizcarra's impeachment.
Though Vizcarra denied any wrongdoing, he quickly agreed to step down.
"Today I am leaving the government palace," he said Monday night. "Today I am going home."
The speed of the ouster and lack of evidence led some political analysts to warn that Congress could be putting Peru's democracy in jeopardy.
"To go after a president and destabilize the country's democracy in the middle of this type of crisis for no serious reason is beyond reckless," said Steve Levitsky, a Harvard University political scientist who has extensively studied Peru.
In Peru, lawmakers can remove a president on the vaguely defined grounds of "permanent moral incapacity" with a two-thirds majority vote.
Many lawmakers justified Vizcarra's ouster as well by pointing to Peru's high virus numbers, deadly oxygen shortages and the misuse of rapid antibody tests to diagnose cases even though they can't 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.
"This is something I can never forgive," lawmaker Maria Cabrera said.
Vizcarra rose to the nation's highest office in 2018 after Kuczynski resigned amid allegations that he had failed to disclose payments from Brazilian construction giant Odebrecht to his private consulting firm. He made defeating corruption his principal mission and is one of the nation's most popular leaders in recent history.
But he was unable to make friends in Congress, dismissing lawmakers last year in a brash move cheered by citizens as a victory against dishonest politicians. He has also pushed through initiatives to curb corruption by changing how judges are chosen and to bar politicians with criminal records from running for office.
Numerous lawmakers themselves are facing criminal probes.
Jo-Marie Burt, a senior fellow with the Washington Office on Latin America, said the impeachment is "terribly destabilizing for Peru." Some politicians outside Congress vowed to continue holding protests. Other said they do not consider Merino's presidency to be legitimate.
"It generates a huge amount of uncertainty at a time when the economy is in a tailspin because of Covid and people are dying," Burt said.
By FRANKLIN BRICEÑO, Associated Press, and CHRISTINE ARMARIO, reporting from Bogota, Colombia.
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