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Peru's swears in new leader as political turmoil hits nation

Supporters of Peru's former President Martin Vizcarra are stopped by police from marching to Congress where lawmakers voted the previous night to remove Vizcarra from office, in Lima, Peru, Tuesday, Nov. 10, 2020. Congress voted to oust Vizcarra over his handling of the new coronavirus pandemic and unproven allegations of corruption years ago. (AP Photo/Rodrigo Abd)

LIMA, Peru (AP) — Peru swore in 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 anthem 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 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 Peru’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 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.

In his first remarks, Merino vowed to move forward with the presidential election planned for April 2021, improve health care to ensure the country is better prepared for a second virus wave, boost the economy and crack down on crime.

“We can’t divide the country,” he said.

But outside Congress, Peru’s divide was readily apparent.

Riot police blocked hundreds of protesters against Merino who banged pots and pans as he was sworn into office. A September Ipsos poll found that 72% of Peruvians in urban areas disapproved of the then-chief of Congress. By contrast, 79% said they thought Vizcarra should continue in office.

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 as 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 later apologized to the military but said he had no ill motives.

“There was never any intention to go beyond rule of law,” he said.

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 for construction contracts while serving as governor of a small southern province years ago. This time, Congress overwhelming approved Vizcarra’s ouster.

Though Vizcarra denied any wrongdoing, he quickly agreed to step down.

“History and the Peruvian people will judge the decisions made,” he said.

The speed of the ouster and lack of evidence led some political analysts to warn that Congress could be putting democracy in jeopardy. The removal also points to structural weaknesses within the nation’s political system. Legislators can override a presidential veto with a simple majority and can remove a president on the vaguely defined grounds of “permanent moral incapacity” with a two-thirds majority vote.

“That does make the Peruvian presidency quite weak,” said Abhijit Surya, Peru analyst for The Economist Intelligence Unit. “I don’t think a lot of his supporters were necessarily claiming that he was definitely innocent, but I think they wanted the investigations to play out.”

Several international rights groups expressed concern about the upheaval.

“I’m very worried for the rule of law in Peru,” said José Miguel Vivanco, head of the Americas division at Human Rights Watch. He added that while there were reasons to investigate Vizcarra, “the impeachment happened in a very questionable way.”

Many lawmakers justified Vizcarra’s ouster not just on the alleged corruption but also on his handling of the pandemic. They pointed 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 face criminal probes.

After Merino left Congress, protesters continued to gather in the city’s historic district under a gray sky. Police and demonstrators briefly clashed, with at least one man throwing what appeared to be a plastic bottle at an officer. Authorities sprayed tear gas but the crowd kept marching.

Jo-Marie Burt, a senior fellow with the Washington Office on Latin America, said the impeachment is “terribly destabilizing for Peru.”

“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.