LIMA – Peruvian lawmakers voted overwhelmingly Monday night to remove President Martín Vizcarra from office, expressing anger over his handling of the coronavirus pandemic and citing alleged but unproven corruption allegations.
The president announced he would not try to fight the ouster, while analysts called the action by legislators an overt and risky power grab in a country where Vizcarra is highly popular but Congress is not.
The ouster measure was supported by 105 legislators — far more than the 87 votes needed for the two-thirds majority required to remove Peru's president. Many said they were casting their vote for his removal in the name of dead loved ones.
“Because of his negligence and incapacity we’ve lost thousands of compatriots,” lawmaker Robinson Gupioc said during over five hours of debate.
Coming just weeks after Vizcarra easily survived another removal vote, Monday's action could spell a new chapter of uncertainty for the country, which has the world’s highest per capita COVID-19 mortality rate and is facing a deep recession. Thousands gathered on the streets of Peru's capital after the vote to denounce Congress.
“Get out coup plotters!" some chanted.
Legislators brought the impeachment proceeding forward on allegations that Vizcarra received more than $630,000 in exchange for two construction projects while serving as governor of a small province in southern Peru in 2011-2014. The allegations are being investigated, but Vizcarra’s supporters have questioned their veracity, noting that they come from construction managers themselves accused of corruption. The accusers could get any potential jail time reduced in exchange for the information.
In a late-night address, Vizcarra said he would not pursue legal options to challenge the removal vote, saying he opted to act with the best interests of the Peruvian people and the nation's democracy in mind.
“Today I am leaving the government palace,” Vizcara said. “Today I am going home.”
According to the chain succession, the head of the legislature will take his place. Lawmakers scheduled a ceremony to swear the new leader in Tuesday.
The speed of the move against the president 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 his defense, Vizcarra warned opposition lawmakers that a rash decision to remove him could bring grave consequences for the already distressed nation. He arrived at Congress wearing a mask with the image of a condor flying over the Andean mountains and said, “History and Peruvians will judge our decisions.”
Speaking to legislators who at times yelled out against him, Vizcarra said he did not have the authority as governor to usher through the contracts in question, which must go through a lengthy approval process involving multiple actors. One contract was for an irrigation project and the other for a hospital.
In Peru, lawmakers can remove a president on the vaguely defined grounds of “moral incapacity.” Vizcarra told them that such a vote “would increase fears about the viability and institutions of Peru, and that would bring grave economic consequences.”
But in numerous speeches, lawmakers went beyond the corruption allegations in explaining why they wanted Vizcarra out. Many 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 then-President Pedro Pablo Kuczynski resigned amid allegations that he had failed to disclose payments from Brazilian construction giant Odebrecht to his private consulting firm.
Vizcarra has made defeating corruption his principal mission and is one of the nation’s most popular leaders in recent history.
But he has been unable to find 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 crimes from running for office.
Numerous lawmakers themselves are facing criminal probes.
Political analyst Alonso Cárdenas said the repeated attempts to oust Vizcarra highlight the weaknesses of Peru’s political system, where no party has a majority and politicians are guided more by individual interests than ideology.
Vizcarra’s predecessor also faced multiple attempts to remove him from office.
“As incredible as it seems, in Peru it is easier to kick out a president than a mayor,” Cárdenas said. “For the political system in general and the credibility of the state this is very negative."
The president survived the impeachment vote in September brought by opposition lawmakers who accused him of favoring a little-known singer known as Richard Swing. The entertainer received nearly $50,000 in questionable contracts by the Ministry of Culture for activities like motivational speaking during the pandemic. Vizcarra denied any misconduct and lawmakers decided there weren't grounds to remove him, though a probe continues.
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,” she said.
Though Vizcarra's government has hired thousands of new doctors and added hundreds of extra ICU beds, many accused him of falling short in responding to the pandemic.
Yessica Apaza, a congresswoman who represents a province where nearly half the people live in poverty, said she could not vote in favor of Vizcarra while more of her constituents begin to go hungry. She pointed to cases of people who died waiting to get oxygen and said she believes Peru is not prepared to handle a second uptick in virus cases.
“It's the time to break this long tail of corruption,” she said. “The government hasn't come through — they've just missed opportunities and deceived."
Associated Press writer Franklin Briceño reported this story in Lima and AP writer Christine Armario reported from Bogota, Colombia.