LIMA – The Peruvian Congress voted 97-26 to appoint a well-regarded centrist legislator to lead a caretaker government following the resignation of Manuel Merino amid massive protests against the unpopular congressional ouster of President Martin Vizcarra.
Technically, members elected Francisco Sagasti, 76, as speaker of Congress, but because the presidency and the vice presidency are vacant, he will automatically become head of state as next in the line of succession.
Sagasti was among only 19 lawmakers in the 130-seat body to oppose the removal of Vizcarra on the grounds that it was illegitimate, destabilizing and contrary to popular opinion.
The center-right parties that pushed to get rid of Vizcarra apparently accepted Sagasti in the hope that the choice of an opponent of impeachment will mollify the public.
“I am convinced that we can only make progress working together, collaborating,” Sagasti said after taking the oath of office as speaker of Congress.
“We have seen the deaths of two young men in protests, expressing their point of view democratically and practically without violence,” he said, referring to Inti Sotelo and Jack Pintado, who died late Saturday of wounds received when police fired pellets at them.
While politicians cannot “bring them back to life,” Sagasti said, they can “take steps to prevent this happening again.”
“We will do everything possible to return hope to Peru,” he said ahead of being sworn in as president on Tuesday.
Sagasti, an engineer by training who spent several years as an adviser to the World Bank, is better placed than Merino to assemble a broad-based Cabinet to ensure a peaceful transition to a new president after the election set for April 11, 2021.
Merino’s decision late Sunday to step down left Peru without a head of state in the context of a deadly pandemic and the resulting economic crisis.
With more than 35,000 deaths and 935,000 confirmed cases, Peru leads the world in per capita fatalities from coronavirus.
The congressional designation of Sagasti came hours after Attorney General Zoraida Avalos said that she ordered a preliminary investigation of Merino, Prime Minister Antero Flores-Araoz and Interior Minister Gaston Rodriguez in connection with the brutal repression of protests against the transitional government.
In addition to the deaths of Pintado and Sotelo, dozens were wounded and a number of female protesters were sexually assaulted in police custody.
“These deaths will not go unpunished,” the attorney general said, pointing out that the offenses took place “in the context of the violation of human rights.”
Merino and his colleagues could face up to 35 years in prison if convicted on homicide charges, Carlos Rivera, an attorney with the independent Legal Defense Institute, told EFE.
The institute joined other human rights organizations to file a criminal complaint against Merino, Flores-Araoz, Rodriguez, National Police director Orlando Velasco and the regional police commander in Lima, Jorge Cayas.
“There is a concrete fact that can be verified: Merino, Antero-Flores and Rodriguez were part of a leadership take made decisions with the aim of repressing the acts of public demonstration and protest,” the filing says.
Hundreds of people turned out Monday in Lima for the funerals of Sotelo and Pintado, hailed as “heroes of the bicentenary” in reference to next year’s 200th anniversary of Peruvian independence.
“For me, my son will always be a fighter,” Oscar Pintado told EFE at Jack’s wake.
“I don’t wish on anybody to find your son with 10 lead pellets inside his body. I don’t wish on anybody to see your son opened up (for an autopsy). Do you know what it is to see a person who has been opened up? Just imagine it, it’s traumatic,” the grieving father said.
On Nov. 9, two months after an earlier attempt to impeach Vizcarra fizzled out, 105 of 130 members of Congress voted to oust him for “moral incapacity” based on unproven accusations of corruption during his 2011-2014 tenure as governor of the Moquegua region.
The impeachment bid in September collapsed when several parties withdrew their support after Vizcarra revealed that Merino had approached the military brass to secure their backing for a move against the president.
Vizcarra took office in March 2018 after his predecessor resigned to avoid being impeached. Pedro Pablo Kuczynski was forced out on suspicion he received some of the $30 million in bribes Brazilian construction giant Odebrecht paid to officials to obtain lucrative public works contracts.
Despite his having no party behind him, Vizcarra had some success in reforming Peru’s judiciary and forcing an early congressional election and enjoys an approval rating of around 50%.
Protests against the Merino government began last Tuesday in Lima and grew both in size and scope with each passing day.
The promoters of impeachment maintained that there was no quid pro quo involved in assembling a congressional super-majority to remove the president.
But it did not escape attention that the leaders of two parties behind the impeachment are the owners of private universities that have clashed with government regulators over the stricter accreditation standards enacted under Vizcarra.
Peru’s Constitutional Tribunal, in response to a motion submitted by Vizcarra before his ouster, agreed to review the validity of “moral incapacity” as a reason to impeach a president. The mechanism was created in the 19th century to address a situation in which the head of state is mentally impaired.
RPP Noticias radio reported on Monday that the tribunal’s presiding judge, Marianella Ledesma, has asked her colleagues to sign on to a ruling that would uphold Vizcarra’s challenge to the validity of the impeachment, but without any provision to put him back in office.