Peru had three presidents in just one week. How could that happen?

Peru’s new interim president, Francisco Sagasti, waves to the crowd in Lima on Monday after he was designated by Congress to lead the nation. (Rodrigo Abd/AP)
Peru’s new interim president, Francisco Sagasti, waves to the crowd in Lima on Monday after he was designated by Congress to lead the nation. (Rodrigo Abd/AP)

In just two weeks, Peru’s constitutional crisis has claimed two presidents, and led to widespread social unrest and the deaths of two protesters.

Here is what you need to know.

How the crisis unfolded

Months after a lockdown in March to stem the coronavirus outbreak, Peru now ranks 12th in the world for coronavirus cases. Amid the pandemic, on Nov. 9, Peru’s Congress voted to impeach President Martín Vizcarra on the basis of “moral unfitness.” Over unproven allegations of corruption and in a move spearheaded by the speaker of Congress, Manuel Merino, lawmakers ousted Vizcarra from office.

This was the second time Merino had led an impeachment charge against Vizcarra. Just two months ago, Merino collaborated with the military to bring up impeachment proceedings against Vizcarra. The impeachment charge was on the grounds of “permanent moral incapacity,” related to a dubious contract given by the Ministry of Culture to a relatively unknown artist, Richard Cisneros. In September, the story was not enough to secure the votes in Congress to impeach Vizcarra.

In November, the public turned out to protest

This time, the public reacted. Protests erupted in the streets of Lima, Tacna, Trujillo, Cusco, and Cajamarca, as well as in New York City, London and cities abroad. Virtual protests also took place via Twitter and Facebook, with trending hashtags of #MerinoNoEsMiPresidente and #MerinoDictador.

Protesters on the streets were largely peaceful, but many were injured by security forces armed with tear gas and shotgun pellets. Peruvians used the hashtag #MerinoAsesino (#MerinoMurderer) after two young protesters died and 40 reportedly disappeared. In addition, undercover police, dressed as university students, reportedly incited violence and painted graffiti to sow distrust among the public.

In response, Merino resigned from the presidency Nov. 15, less than a week after assuming the position. The same night, Congress deliberated on a list of potential candidates to replace Merino, but lawmakers deadlocked. On Nov. 16, 24 hours after Peru had become a headless state, Congress elected as president Francisco Rafael Sagasti Hochhausler. Sagasti will be Peru’s third president this month.

Antipathy toward past authoritarian rule sparked the protests

Decades of corruption and authoritarian governance in Peru shaped this year’s protests. This new generation of protesters claimed that the government “messed with the wrong generation” — signaling that they were unwilling to accept Congress’s impeachment of Vizcarra, and were ready to show up and speak up in their efforts to break with Peru’s corrupt past.

The protesters rejected the continuation of politics as usual, involving officials such as those who had impeached Vizcarra. Take, for example, the near-impeachment of President Pablo Kuczynski in 2017. As I note in my research on transitional justice in Peru, Kuczynski faced corruption charges from his business ties to the Brazilian firm Odebrecht. These charges led his opponents to declare him morally unfit to serve in office.

To survive impeachment, Kuczynski negotiated a humanitarian pardon for human rights criminal and former president Alberto Fujimori and secured votes from Fujimori’s political party to block the impeachment. The outcry from human rights defenders against Fujimori’s pardon and the release of secret videos that linked Kuczynski with more corruption led to his resignation in March 2018. That’s when his vice president, Martín Vizcarra, ascended to the presidency.

Human rights concerns also fueled protests

Vizcarra’s impeachment exposed the close relationship between political leaders in Peru and the armed forces. Merino, for example, maintained close relations with the military, the former president and colonel of the armed forces, Ollanta Humala, and Humala’s brother, Antauro, the retired major of the armed forces. For many protesters, the concern was a possible political relapse, which would have handed power back to parties in control when 69,000 people died or disappeared during Peru’s two decades of internal armed conflict, from 1980-2000.

Antauro is in jail, serving a sentence for an unsuccessful coup attempt he staged in 2005. That has not stopped him from declaring his interest in running for president and his leadership role in the Union for Peru political party. With the impeachment, representatives of Union for Peru asserted that Antauro’s release from jail was already in the “works.” As interim president, Merino maneuvered to help Antauro. Why? Because if Merino had given him a humanitarian pardon or an amnesty, Antauro would have been released from jail and could have launched his presidential run. Merino himself would not have been able to run, as Article 112 of Peru’s Constitution does not allow presidents to seek immediate reelection.

This isn’t Peru’s first constitutional crisis

The current constitutional crisis reminds many Peruvians of Fujimori’s 1992 “self-coup” with military support that dissolved Congress and suspended all civil liberties. Fujimori’s presidency was marked by serious human rights violations, including disappearances, extrajudicial executions, torture, arbitrary detention and sexual violence against the opposition, or anyone the government suspected of being leftist sympathizers.

There were reports of similar human rights violations during the recent protests against Merino, with police holding protesters arbitrarily, women subjected to sexual violence and peaceful protesters beaten by riot police. The scenes of tanks on Lima’s streets last week reminded Peruvians of the 1992 coup and the reign of Fujimori that ended in 2000. These memories helped spread protests across the country and secured the resignation of Merino and the nomination of Sagasti as president.

Peru is scheduled to hold presidential elections in April 2021. Those running include Daniel Urresti, a former military general; Kenji Fujimori, son of Alberto Fujimori; and Antauro Humala. The old political circles of power continue to remain influential in Peruvian politics. However, the candidates will no doubt have to consider the emerging power of Peru’s youths and their success in removing an interim president from office.

Ñusta Carranza Ko is an assistant professor in the School of Public and International Affairs at the University of Baltimore.

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